Organ donor, volunteer is a ‘mensch of all mensches’

Mark Dana is an avid cyclist who frequently takes part in fundraising cycling events such as Pedal the Cause. Photo: Bill Motchan

ERIC BERGER, Associate Editor

Twenty-eight years ago, Mark Dana’s first wife suggested that they join Congregation B’nai Amoona. The couple had previously attended High Holiday services and lit a menorah during Hanukkah, and that was about the extent of their Judaism.
Dana was open to the idea but said to his wife, “If we’re going to join, we’re going to get involved. I don’t see any reason to be a member of a club if you don’t get involved.”
That was not just idle chatter. Dana has not only given lots of time to the Conservative congregation but has literally donated a piece of himself to a cause he learned about at the synagogue.

That focus on following through appears to be a guiding principle for Dana. About two decades ago, Dana had just gotten into cycling when a friend told him about the MS 150 Ride, a 150-mile event to raise money for multiple sclerosis research.

Dana since has not only ridden that race annually for the past 20 years, but also has started doing cycling events each year such as Pedal the Cause, to raise money for cancer research at the Siteman Cancer Center, and the Tour de Cure, for the American Diabetes Association.

“Mark’s entire life is about making the world a better place,” said Rabbi Carnie Rose of B’nai Amoona, who had a brain tumor and in whose honor Dana rode one year at Pedal the Cause.

Dana spent 30 years in human resources at Boeing, the aerospace manufacturer that has its defense division in St. Louis. He retired four years ago and splits his time among a number of causes, including volunteering weekly at the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry; driving blood or plasma each Wednesday from St. Louis to Columbia, Mo. for the American Red Cross; and of course, B’nai Amoona.

After joining the synagogue, Dana served 24 years as the floor gabbai during Shabbat services and on the High Holidays, meaning he would spend hours walking throughout the sanctuary and directing people when it was their time to be called for a particular prayer, reading or other ritual.

“It was a great way to get to know members of the congregation (and to learn) the flow of the service,” said Dana, who also has volunteered to be part of a weekly minyan, a quorum of 10 people needed for the recitation of certain prayers.

During one morning service, a fellow minyan member said he needed a kidney.

“I said, ‘Well, if you need a donor, I’d be glad to be the donor for you,’ ” Dana recalled, using a tone as though it had been as ordinary as offering the person a ride home.

The request for a kidney and Dana’s offer to donate was part of a larger chain of events at B’nai Amoona that made organ donation a regular part of the conversation at the synagogue. In 2017, Lynnsie Balk Kantor, a B’nai Amoona member, learned that the congregation’s former cantor, Leon Lissek, needed a kidney and donated the organ to him. And a number of members had been recipients of organ donations and spoke about the mitzvah of organ donation on Shabbat.

“I can’t think of a better mitzvah than the combination of preserving, saving and enhancing life,” Rose said.

Dana ultimately did not donate a kidney in that instance. But during a February 2019 Shabbat service, Rose announced that another member needed a kidney. At the kiddush after service, Dana again said, “I would be glad to be your donor.”

Dana reached out to a coordinator for organ donation at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, who reviewed Dana’s medical records and saw that he was on a particular blood pressure medication that meant he didn’t qualify. Dana reached out to his doctor and asked whether he could switch to a different medication.

A month later, Dana called the coordinator back and said that he had switched medications and that the doctor had given him the OK to donate.

Meanwhile, the B’nai Amoona member who needed the kidney had further medical issues and died in February.

But Dana had already signed up and was ready to part with one of his kidneys. Donors are often motivated by their connection to a recipient or by a personal story. Now Dana would be giving an organ to a stranger.

Should he back out?

“Once I was in the process, there was something gratifying about knowing you’re in darn good shape,” Dana said, laughing. “All this work I have done for all these years paid off.”

So, he thought, why just not help someone else out? And that’s a message Dana is trying to send: that donating a kidney, at least in his case, did not mean “making a great sacrifice.”

On May 14, he had surgery, and two days later he was back home. The medical staff told him he needed to walk as much as he could, so Dana and his wife, Belinda, walked more than four miles each day around their home in Chesterfield.

After three weeks, Dana was back on his bike and he has since ridden more than 3,000 miles.

“It didn’t slow me down,” he said.

Given his experience, he said, “I really wish more people would give serious thought about being a live donor. … All the testing, chest X-ray, blood work, stress test, those type of things, were all scheduled, and it was nothing that was an inconvenience that made you stop what you were doing for any great amount of time.”

According to the National Kidney Foundation, more than 120,000 people in the United States are waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant.

“I really think if [the Kidney Foundation] would do more work of educating people of what is involved with being a donor, that would increase the number of live donors,” Dana said.

While Dana does not see his donation as any great sacrifice, he still would like to meet the recipient. But he said health care providers tend to wait a year before allowing donor and recipient to meet.

In the meantime, Dana is continuing to ride and hoping that the pandemic subsides to the point where group cycling events like the MS 150 can safely reconvene. To help move that process along, Dana is participating in Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine trial.

Dana said he was motivated by the notion “of volunteerism and the great need for volunteers.”

Even if the cycling events aren’t able to resume in the near future, Dana still finds other ways to help on the bike. Whenever he and others are riding and see someone stopped on the side of the road, Dana is “always the one guy in the group who will either stop and see if everything is OK or scream out, ‘Is everything OK?’ ” said David Lanson, a fellow B’nai Amoona member who frequently rides with Dana.

In short, Lanson said, Dana is the “mensch of all mensches.”