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Three Binghamton Alums Unite to Make a Difference

Jennifer Kirschenbaum, Dr. Joseph Del Pizzo and Arielle Disick reunite outside of New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Transplant Center in August. Image Credit: Jonathan Heisler.

For Arielle Disick ’12, donating a kidney in 2022 wasn’t about bravery or altruism. It was all about doing something good.

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“You never know how much of an impact a little bit of kindness can make and what the ripple effects will be,” she says. “If you can do something to help, you should help.”

As a “non-directed donor,” Disick volunteered to donate a kidney to an unidentified recipient. The stranger’s match is based on medical compatibility.

According to the United Network for Organ Sharing, about 5,800 living-donor kidney transplants will take place in 2022. Non-directed donors provided around 1,200 kidneys.

Disick’s gift is unique in that she collaborated with two other Binghamton University alumni—transplant coordinator Jennifer Kirschenbaum ’13 and Dr. Joseph Del Pizzo ’90 — at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Transplant Center in New York City, to save a life.

“I am so grateful to them and their role in making this possible,” says Disick, who did not know either medical professional before the transplant process. “I was comforted by the connection we have.”

“This [bond] shows what kind of people Binghamton attracts and breeds,” Kirschenbaum says. “The three of us came together in an organic way, but we’re from the same place.”

The donor

Arielle Disick ’12 donated a kidney to an unknown recipient in 2002. Image Credit: Jonathan Heisler.

Arielle Disick grew up in New Jersey and picked Binghamton because she wanted an excellent business school that was not too far away. Visiting a cousin who was a University student sealed the deal for her, and she enrolled as a School of Management student in fall 2009. Among the highlights of her Binghamton experience were a six-week study-abroad trip to Spain and a Birthright Israel trip with Hillel.

“It was a defining moment in my time at Binghamton,” she says of traveling to Israel. “Even in the winter of my senior year, I was able to meet lifelong friends.”

Disick “bounced around geographically” after graduating in December 2012, getting her law degree from Emory University in 2015, and working in several locales. In November 2017, she came across a social media post from a former Binghamton classmate, Sara Smith, about a teenage girl in need of a kidney donor.

“Sara and I had studied abroad in Spain, and, at the time, my younger sister was a sophomore in college getting ready to study in Spain. I was so excited for all the opportunities she had ahead of her,” Disick recalls. “So seeing Sara’s post, of a girl who could’ve been my sister, and her family searching for a kidney donor… it just tugged at my heart strings, and I knew I had to reach out.”

The teen and her family soon found a match, but through the process, Disick learned about non-directed (or anonymous) donations, and “a seed was planted.”

In 2021, she said to herself, “I think it’s time.”

“I was growing in my career and was comfortable with my living situation and support system,” she says.

Disick went online and searched for “kidney donation transplant center in New York City.” The first name that came to mind was Weill Cornell, which has one of the country’s major kidney transplant programs. Disick emailed a donor inquiry, and a Zoom call was scheduled.

The coordinator

Jennifer Kirschenbaum ’13 works as a kidney donor transport coordinator in New York City. Image Credit: Jonathan Heisler.

Jennifer (Kornblatt) Kirschenbaum knew she wanted to work in healthcare since she was a teenager. She visited folks with ALS and volunteered at a nursing home.

“I fell in love with spending time with these patients,” says Kirschenbaum, who grew up in Northport, Long Island. “At the time, I didn’t understand what nursing was or the extent of what nurses did. I just knew it was my calling.”

Kirschenbaum, like Disick, had a remarkable first visit to Binghamton when she met her future husband (Jared Kirschenbaum ’11, who went on to become Student Association president) at the Hillel office and was “swept away” by the bustling campus.

“It was one of those weird March days in Binghamton that was 70 degrees,” she recalls. “People were on the quad, and I thought, ‘I love this! It’s like California here.’ It was the best four years of my life.”

Kirschenbaum enrolled in what was then known as the Decker School of Nursing and was impressed by the academic members and their areas of expertise. Kirschenbaum was able to participate in organ procurement for a deceased donor as a senior after hearing an organ donation guest lecture. In late 2019, she was hired as a kidney donor transplant coordinator at New York-Presbyterian Hospital’s Weill Cornell Transplant Center.

The coordinator is a “jack of all trades” who serves as the focal point for a broader team that evaluates the donor’s physical and emotional condition. A renal doctor, a surgeon, a social worker, a financial adviser, a dietitian, and a psychiatrist, among others, meet with potential donors.

“We’re getting as much information as possible to ensure [a donor] will be safe in the future with just one kidney,” Kirschenbaum says. “I’m facilitating all of the testing, interpreting it and reviewing it with physicians and deciding what other appointments are needed. There is a lot of education involved, which is my favorite part of nursing.”

And education is a must for kidney donation, as the process has changed substantially during the past quarter-century.

The surgeon

Dr. Joseph Del Pizzo ’90 is a pioneer in laparo-endscopic single site surgery, a less-invasive kidney operation. Image Credit: Jonathan Heisler.

Joseph Del Pizzo still recalls the significance of living in Newing College’s Bingham Hall as a first-semester student in 1986.

“There were close to 10 of us there who went on to medical school,” he says. “My floor was a haven for pre-med students! I still keep in touch with many of them today.”

Binghamton University (formerly SUNY Binghamton) provided a “strong pipeline” to medical schools in both New York City and upstate New York, according to the Long Island resident. Del Pizzo established that he was on the correct track by volunteering at local hospitals. He graduated from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York City in 1994 and soon after began his residency at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Del Pizzo witnessed his mentors create a less-invasive approach for kidney donation while a urologic surgery intern in the late 1990s. It required three or four abdominal holes and a 3- to 4-inch incision around the belly button. In 1995, the first laparoscopic kidney donation was performed in Baltimore.

This signified a significant advancement since the first kidney transplant in Boston in 1954.

“From the 1960s to 2000s, surgery for living kidney donation necessitated an 8- to 12-inch incision across somebody’s back,” Del Pizzo said. “It was referred to as a’shark-bite’ incision.” There were also other barriers to [living] contributions. The majority of transplants came from deceased organ donors.”

Del Pizzo moved to Weill Cornell in 2000 to further develop the less intrusive kidney surgery. He was a pioneer in laparo-endoscopic single-site surgery (LESS), which involves making a 2- to 3-inch incision into the belly button.

“I said: We can do better. The less pain people experience post-operation and the smaller the incision, the quicker the recovery will be,” he says. “Back to their jobs, back to their family. The less downtime you have, the more people will come and donate. More donations mean less people on the national [kidney] waiting list.”

Del Pizzo now performs two to three kidney procedures per week, with around 20% originating from undirected donors. The living donation rate has increased to 50%, up from 15-20% prior to laparoscopic improvements.

“We can say to a donor: You can donate to your brother and save his life,” says Del Pizzo, who has received Best Doctors in America honors. “You’ll be in the hospital one or two nights. You’ll be recovering for one to two weeks. But three or four weeks after the surgery, you’ll be working out, taking care of the kids, whatever you do. People still astound me 22 years into my career.”

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