Middlebrook School 6th-grade teacher MaryEllen Epstein is certainly knowledgeable when it comes to science, but even she was amazed at everything there was to learn about a kidney transplant.

The 20-year veteran science teacher found she had a lot to learn when her husband, Eric Epstein, was diagnosed with advanced kidney disease. Significant weight loss and lifestyle changes resulted in some improvement of his kidney function, but the Epsteins knew that long term, Eric would only survive with a kidney transplant.

GMW first reported on Eric’s condition last November, when he was still waiting for a donor match. After ruling out nearby programs such as NYU, Columbia and Yale, the Epsteins concluded their best prospect for a timely transplant would be at a hospital in Orlando, Florida, or Albany, New York.

It was the Orlando hospital that called first with a possible match. While that match ultimately did not work out, it did open the Epsteins’ eyes to the reality that they needed to be ready at a moment’s notice. MaryEllen told GMW, “We realized this [match] could happen at any time, so we kept a suitcase packed from then on.” MaryEllen’s parents were also on standby to move in to help with their two children, ages 6 and 4.

The next call came from Albany on Jan. 22. This time, the match was good, and the surgery quickly followed on Jan. 24.

GMW spoke to MaryEllen from her hotel room in Albany, where the couple is staying during Eric’s initial recovery. Though Eric was well enough to be discharged from the hospital, they decided to stay in close proximity for the follow-up care and “constant adjustments” that are to be expected in the days following a transplant (and because post-op complications are fairly common).

But so far, MaryEllen reports Eric is doing well, and in some ways, even better than expected. She explained that it can take some time for a transplanted kidney to become functional, but in Eric’s case, that happened right away. A full physical recovery from such a complex surgery will take some time, but Eric has begun taking short walks and is up to about 15 minutes at a time.

Of course, the immunological aspects are especially complicated, with a regimen of anti-rejection medications suppressing his immune system and making him susceptible not only to COVID-19 but even ordinary infections or illnesses.

MaryEllen bought a toolbox when she realized common pillboxes would be totally inadequate. “The medicines are $8,000 to $10,000 a month,” she said.

Since Eric’s medical journey began, the couple has been flooded with offers from people to help. They were advised to channel those efforts to the National Foundation for Transplants, where donations will go directly to Eric’s medical costs and related expenses. According to an NFT mission statement, “NFT provides advocacy, fundraising expertise and grants to organ and tissue transplant patients for medical care, medications and travel needs they otherwise could not afford. Founded in 1983, NFT has generated more than $56 million to help patients during their transplant journey.”

The financial support from donations made to NFT on behalf of the Epsteins is crucial now more than ever: MaryEllen is just beginning an unpaid leave of absence from Middlebrook. In addition to the financial pressure, she feels torn. “I already miss the kids,” she told GMW. “It’s been such a tough time [during the pandemic] for everyone. I feel bad I am not there [for the students].”

She went on to express her sincere gratitude for the many kind gestures and well-wishes from students and parents in Wilton. “That’s why I teach in Wilton. I love Wilton. Everyone has been so supportive,” she said.

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To contribute to the campaign to benefit Eric Epstein and his family, visit their fundraising webpage.

GMW would like to remind our readers that another beloved member of the Wilton school community is seeking a living organ donor match. Read our story here for details and to learn if you are a match.