Interview with Helen Altshuler: alumna, Googler, woman in technology, Seidenberg Advisory Board member, overall star

Helen Altshuler is a Seidenberg alumna (BS in Computer Science ’97) of whom we are particularly proud. Not only does she have a fascinating life story, but years of hard work have enabled her to progress to a position of thought leader today. Recent articles have described her as one of the top female “engineering leaders closing the gender gap in NYC tech” (builtinnyc.com), despite her status as a noteworthy woman in tech being quite unintentional and unexpected on Helen’s part! She’s also a member of the Seidenberg Advisory Board, so we get to enjoy her presence frequently.

As a senior engineering leader at Google, Helen is responsible for managing a multi-year transformation program in Google Cloud, and an Open Source platform called Bazel. Prior to Google, Helen was the CTO at the fintech startup PeerIQ, where she built data and engineering teams, created a cloud based analytics platform for peer to peer lending, and sold it to key institutional clients. She started her career as a software engineer at JP Morgan, after obtaining a CS degree at Pace University. She grew into technical leadership and Executive Director roles, becoming responsible for technology delivery in Credit Risk, Big Data and Analytics.

Helen is passionate about talent development and is a frequent hackathon mentor/judge, women in tech guest speaker, and Girls Who Code facilitator. She actively promotes diversity and STEM initiatives at Pace University as a member of Pace Women in Business Steering Committee.

I visited Helen at Google the day after a snowstorm in NYC. When I emailed her to check we were still on, she responded that, yes, “the city is open and so are we” – my first glimpse of a woman with extraordinary work ethic.

Not long after we sat down, Helen began to describe her life. Born in the former Soviet Union (now Ukraine), Helen didn’t experience the same societal norms concerning gender as in the USA. “Women leaders were everywhere!” she said, listing the Russian astronaut Valentina Tereshkova, India’s first and only female prime minister Indira Gandhi, and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

She moved with her family to the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union, where limited opportunities and discrimination caused them to come to America as refugees.

“I came here for the opportunities that weren’t available to me in my country – nothing was going to stop me from doing that,” Helen says. “I also came here as a woman, from somewhere where I wasn’t restricted by anything.”

One would expect that coming from a background of gender equality to a place where society treats the sexes with discrepancies ranging from subtle to outrageous would be quite the culture shock. However, Helen’s experience was different. Her background had escalated her to the point where her interactions with people were based on them as individual personalities. “I feel like I had blinders on; those blinders helped me. I never saw men and women at work – I saw people and colleagues who were there to work together.”

In fact, Helen never even thought of herself as a “woman in tech” until, 10 years into her tech career, she was invited to speak at a women in tech panel for the first time. Technology was just something she did, like everybody else she worked with. It was something she had always done.

“Since I was the only child, my father wanted to raise me to be as technical as I could be,” Helen explains. That said, when she first moved here she was interested in doing art but a swift reality check made her change her mind. “I walked down Broadway seeing artists selling their work for nothing and I couldn’t do that as an immigrant. I needed a make a living!”

Helen reunited with one of her past Pace professors, Carol Wolf.

She started the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science here at Pace University in 1993. This was around the time the world wide web was really becoming worldwide, and the internet was rolling out and developing faster than ever. What was it like being in the middle of that frenzy?

“Everything was moving so fast at that point that I didn’t have time to stop and think about it. I was an intern at Marsh & McLennan (insurance company) through Pace’s co-op program, and HTML and CGI had just become popular. My boss bought a book called HTML for Dummies and put it on my
desk and said ‘hey, we need an intranet site’ – it was a continuation from my studies at Pace. It was pretty organic; my job was all about building technology and this was a new thing to build.

“Pace had IRC chat before the world wide web. The amazing thing was that only the computer science students at other universities had access at the time. We had mainframes that allowed us to connect with CS students across the world; I chatted with students in Canada, Israel, Russia – it’s how I met my husband who was at Polytech. It brought us together through our curiosity about technology. It was a way to get perspective from different tech students. Later on, more students from other disciplines got on, but for a while it was just us tech students.”

After she graduated, Helen started out as a software engineer and grew her career from there. She learned that progress was good and that taking opportunities was a way to move on to bigger and better things. “But don’t move up so quickly that you have to play catch up for the rest of your career,” she warns. Even in her senior position now, Helen is an advocate of gaining and maintaining technical knowledge. It isn’t fun moving into a new position where you feel lacking in the knowledge department – in the long run, progressing too soon can hold you back.

One should never shy away from progress, on the other hand. Helen’s list of recommendations for corporate career growth is short and simple:

  •       Become a domain expert
  •       Align yourself to your manager’s success
  •       If you see an opportunity, raise your hand
  •       If you’re tapped on the shoulder, go for it
  •       … but resist the temptation to move up too quickly before building your domain expertise

But what if opportunities don’t seem to come your way? Women in particular can find it difficult to say yes to progress, even when offered to them – and when it’s not? Many struggle to start conversations and end up waiting for a promotion that either won’t come or comes much later than it should, whereas if they had asked for it they could have received it sooner.

“Sometimes women rely on their managers to appreciate them,” Helen says, echoing a sentiment expressed by another of our alumna, Kim Perdikou.

Kim, who graduated in 1993, said in a previous interview: “I had this very wrong belief that if you worked really hard your boss would recognize it and you’d eventually get a job doing what you really should be doing. That is utter rubbish.”

Interestingly, another Seidenberg friend who recently spoke at our LST Honoree Speaker Series (which Helen introduced), Judy Spitz, told a story about advancement as a woman: “Once, early in my career, I got called into the senior executive’s office and he said ‘I want to give you this job’. I said to him ‘I’m not sure that I’m qualified for that job’. He looked at me like I had three heads. I’m not sure he’d ever had anyone in that office he’d offered a promotion to who said no, thanks.”

Imposter syndrome and plain societal conditioning are big problems for many women in technology – and in other fields. As someone with experience having these conversations and self-advocating, Helen has some advice.

“Bring your data with you,” she says. Your manager can’t deny your good work if you bring along proof. “Sometimes, you need to put your foot forward, show your data, and negotiate.”

Negotiating doesn’t have to be confrontational, either. “You don’t want to go too aggressive; it can affect your self-worth. When I came to Google, I took a leap of faith – I did not negotiate aggressively, because I looked at this opportunity as a longer term career path rather than just the next job.”

The notion of women in technology being a movement and of being a woman in technology herself took a hold on Helen. It was also what spurred her interest in board memberships. When I asked her why she joined the Seidenberg advisory board, she replied that she’d always been curious about it.

“I attended a women’s leadership panel where they stressed the importance of being on boards. It’s important to establish yourself as a thought leader – that helps with a broader perspective and gets you recognized within your industry. Women on boards is kind of the same thing as women CEOs and other high positions – there just needs to be more of it!”

Being on the board means bringing unique ideas with her to the Seidenberg School. “I started teaching through my son’s school Girls Who Code program, and started thinking about when I first came to New York, wanting to be an artist. I want to create a web design & developmente program at Pace. There is a benefit to combining the arts and sciences school and the computer science school. There are coding boot camps for Web Design and Development, but they fall short in giving CS fundamentals, impacting the quality of front end engineers on the market.  Pace is uniquely positioned to do it, with the perfect combination of art and computing.”

Working with Girls Who Code (GWC), a national not-for-profit organization that aims to close the gender gap in technology, has created a reciprocal relationship for Helen. She started working with GWC around the same time she started at Google – late summer, 2016. “That’s usually how it is for me: when you start something new, you try to put yourself on a path that’s going to change your life to some extent.”

Helen teaches web design and development, which was what inspired her thought process about potentially combining art and computing in a program at Pace. In fact, her participation with GWC, Seidenberg, and her work at Google are mutually beneficial: “The logical connection between Google, GWC, and Seidenberg, is that learning one helps the other. I had to re-learn some HTML and CSS for GWC, then one of the first things I had to do at Google was update a roadmap page on our website using those same skills.”

“Similarly, I bring suitable Google concepts, like material design and design sprints, to GWC and other programs. What I learn here, I apply in class, and what I learn in class I can sometimes apply at Google as well!”

Despite having been with Google for less than a year, Helen has, as she put it, “drank the Kool-Aid.” The company’s focus on community meant a focus on integration at the beginning. “I learned that newcomers to Google get to wear a stylish hat complete with a propeller on top and are referred to as “Nooglers” for the first six months.”

Working at the coveted Google company means Helen knows a thing or two about career paths. So what’s her best advice for tech students? And what about getting beyond the infamous Google interview?

“You need to build your domain expertise. In technology, that expertise manifests itself in two areas. One, which is the most important in interviews, is hardcore tech skills. You need to know your algorithms, etc, and it helps you do well in interviews. The second one is, I meet a lot of students who want to be managers. They should be more thoughtful about their longer-term career plans. You can’t manage until you understand your domain well. A lot of women are drawn to technical leadership – you need to be a domain expert first, which could take 4+ years of coding before you can move on.”

“Camille Fournier [a technical thought leader and former chief technology officer of Rent the Runway], said that she worked as a software engineer for 10 years and achieved mastery; at that point, she could apply herself to any technology, even if she was out of practice.

“At Google, you are constantly pushed in technical directions. Even as a leader, I’m expected to code – and I welcome that extra reinforcement. On the other hand, where I achieved mastery is in systems design and scalability, and understanding how to process data and work with data at scale. That’s what Google is all about and that’s what you learn, and it’s also important in the fintech sector. You want to keep your systems working under different conditions. Those are the skills that help you get a job in any industry. No matter what systems you work on, they need to scale and they need to be reliable.

“A lot of my interview at Google had to do with understanding of scaling large and complex systems. Google has billions of users; how do you keep that data usable? When you click on an email, how do you get it to load instantly instead of in 10 minutes? I may not achieve mastery on the pure coding front, but I certainly achieved it on systems design/scalability front.”

Having domain expertise is something that can only be achieved after years of practice. Anyone can get into casual coding, but it’s the hours you put in that really count. Helen is clearly someone who has put the hours in. “I try to tie in everything extracurricular that I do directly to work or to family,” she says. “I do hackathons with my son, coding camps with my daughter.”

And all of that is against the backdrop of NYC. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I like having lots of options to explore with my kids. When the kids were little, I took them to celebrate every international holiday – Chinatown for Chinese New Year, Little India for Independence Day, so we could celebrate international culture.”

Diversity is one of the things that makes New York great. It’s a city of hard workers, a landscape that is reflected within the walls of the Seidenberg School as students rush from class to internship to workshop to co-op job to networking event.

Recently, the New York Times ranked Pace University #2 nationwide for the upward mobility of our students. Students who come through our doors from less privileged backgrounds end up graduating and going on to great things. When Helen moved here in 1993 with $3000 to her name and the determination to make a good life for herself and family, she exemplified that quintessentially New York attitude – and ours.

LST Honoree Speaker Series: Judy Spitz, Part III

This is the third in a three part post covering the Judy Spitz’s incredible interview with Seidenberg student Niamh Fitzsimon. The event is the first in a series featuring previous winners of our prestigious Leadership and Service in Technology (LST) award.

Part one

Part two

Tickets for the LST Awards in April are available now!

The event was rounded off with a brief Q&A session. Judy had excellent responses for our students, such as Ava Posner’s (BS in IT) question about her motivation for making a path for women.

“In my opinion, the technology field NEEDS us,” Judy replied. “It’s proven that in teams with more diversity you get better results. Women control the majority of purchasing power around the world. With product developers being mostly men, we may not be getting the best product ideas.”

Another question was about the hardest hurdle Judy has come up against. She immediately demonstrated her finesse with her first step to success – being able to tell a good story.

“At one point in my career, I oversaw the organization that delivered software to the networking engineering organization within Verizon. The network organization is the engine room in a company. The guys- all guys – who ran that organization were all engineers from the south. These were guys who were working for the phone companies their whole lives. They were older than me and they were true blue engineers. Well, in walks Judt Spitz with her PhD! I didn’t know anything about engineering or networking and I was supposed to be the partner that helped deliver the software. They had no interest in working with me. It took me a long time to figure out how to get past that.

“What I ultimately did was I brought my entourage with me – a group of people who knew me and liked me and supported me. We went to meetings and there I was surrounded by these guys who WERE comfortable with me. There’s two things you can say in this kind of situation, which are ‘gosh darnit you’re going to GET comfortable with me’, or you can say ‘what can I do to make you comfortable?’ Because the end goal is not about me, it’s about getting the software delivered. I’m being paid to deliver the software that the organization wants – remember, it’s not about you, it’s about whatever you need to accomplish. Over time, they began to realize I did have some skills – not necessarily in engineering, but about management, delivering software on time; the type of thing that makes their lives easier.”

Another question came back to women in technology. One of our students, Kendra Jackman, asked if Judy had thoughts on why fewer women are interested in tech careers, or why they choose not to pursue them.

“The lack of women in technology is not universal,” Judy said, indicating that the issue of so few women pursuing computing careers is not replicated in other countries. “I don’t think there’s anything different genetically between women here and in the rest of the world. It’s cultural. There are a lot of disincentives and cultural bias. In the 90s, when personal computers came into the house, it was assumed to be a toy for the boys: they took them apart, gamed on them, games were created for boys, and it was around then that women started to be less interested in technology and computer science. Once it gets going, it perpetuates itself. When you think about role models in technology, who do you think of? Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates: it becomes a stereotype. When you’re a female student and you peek into the Intro to Computer Science class and all you see is men, you think ‘I don’t see anyone like me’. And there are all kinds of unconscious things that go on in those classrooms. Guys don’t want you on their teams, they’ve been hacking longer than you, they don’t think you’re as good as them.”

Judy’s solution to the problem is simple: “The more women in computer science, the more women in computer science. As you get more women into the classroom in computer science, the classroom culture starts to change. The more the culture changes, the more women in the classes. I think the most effective you can do is require every undergraduate to take an Intro to Computer Science class and make that class fun.”

Finally, Judy rounded off the session by answering a question about leadership. “The most important thing about leadership is to understand that it’s a relationship. It’s a relationship between you and the people you want to follow you. It’s about them, not you.

“Make sure you surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Don’t think the key to success is to be the smartest person in the room. You don’t have to be the smartest, you have to be the person who can assemble the best team.”

Judy’s last remark was to advise everyone to surround themselves by leaders who act the way described above as they will learn from their habits.

The event was closed off with a raffle for a $100 gift card, which was won by student Rachel Gonzalez – congrats, Rachel! Coffee’s on you, right?

This was the first event in our three-event series, with the next taking place on March 22nd with Nicholas Donofrio, IBM Fellow Emeritus (Ret.) IBM Executive Vice President, Innovation and Technology, on our Westchester campus. The final event will be an interview with Austin A. Adams, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer (Ret.), JPMorgan Chase, at our NYC campus on April 19th.

The LST Honoree Speaker Series is part of a run up to our annual benefit, the Leadership and Service in Technology Awards. Tickets are available now!

Thank you so much to Judy Spitz for an unforgettable day!

LST Honoree Speaker Series: Judy Spitz, Part II

See the first part of this interview here!

Welcome back! This is the second part of Judy Spitz’s incredible interview with Seidenberg student Niamh Fitzsimon. The event is the first in a series featuring previous winners of our prestigious Leadership and Service in Technology (LST) award.

Tickets for the LST Awards in April are available now!

One of the topics that kept reoccurring during Niamh’s interview with Judy is something very close to our heart at the Seidenberg School: women in technology. Niamh herself is Vice President of the student organization Pace Women in Tech. She asked whether Judy found that being a woman ever played a part in how she worked with her teams.

“No, it never changed anything that I did, one way or the other. I will say that there’s all this data that shows that women feel like they need to meet 120% of the job requirements to apply for the job. Men are in the 50-60% range. Don’t look at job ads and say oh I can’t do that part I shouldn’t apply for it. Men look and say ‘oh, I can do most of those things’ and that’s plenty.

“Once, early in my career, I got called into the senior executive’s office and he said ‘I want to give you this job’. I said to him ‘I’m not sure that I’m qualified for that job’. He looked at me like I had three heads. I’m not sure he’d ever had anyone in that office he’d offered a promotion to who said no, thanks. The lesson is that if someone who knows you thinks you’re qualified for a job, you probably are.”

Judy went on to tell the audience to trust themselves more. “Your instincts are usually the right instincts.”

While on the topic of women in tech, Judy took some time to talk about how WiTNY came to be.

“The number of jobs in the technology industry has gone up but the number of women participating has gone down. During my time at Verizon, I became alarmed at the small amount of women coming up behind me. Who was going to be the next CIO? I got the WiTNY program going, a 5 year initiative to get more women studying STEM.”

The Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York, or WiTNY initiative, aims to significantly increase the participation of women in STEM fields in the New York market. Through strategic initiatives, WiTNY mainly works on enabling high school girls preparing for college to focus on STEM paths and secure rewarding and lucrative careers within the tech field.

As an institution with our own Women in Technology initiatives, like STEM Women Achieve Greatness (SWAG) and Pace Women in Tech, we think WiTNY is a wonderful, extremely valuable project.

Head to part 3 of Judy Spitz’s amazing interview here!

This was the first event in our three-event series, with the next taking place on March 22nd with Nicholas Donofrio, IBM Fellow Emeritus (Ret.) IBM Executive Vice President, Innovation and Technology, on our Westchester campus. The final event will be an interview with Austin A. Adams, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer (Ret.), JPMorgan Chase, at our NYC campus on April 19th.

The LST Honoree Speaker Series is part of a run up to our annual benefit, the Leadership and Service in Technology Awards. Tickets are available now!

Part 3

LST Honoree Speaker Series kicks off on International Women’s Day with Judy Spitz

Although it wasn’t planned, the fact that the first of our LST Honoree Speaker Series fell on International Women’s Day was serendipitous to say the least. The event was part of a run-up to the Leadership and Service in Technology (LST) Awards, an annual benefit for the Seidenberg School during which we celebrate outstanding individuals who best exemplify leadership and innovation in the tech field. This year’s award will be going to Suresh Kumar, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer at BNY Mellon. Tickets can be purchased at various levels for this fantastic opportunity to attend the reception, network with industry professionals and alumni, and support the Seidenberg School.

Judy Spitz is the Founding Program Directory of the Initiative for Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York (WiTNY). She received the LST award in 2012, when she was the Senior Vice President and CIO at Verizon. On Wednesday March 8, a crowd of over 100 students, alums, and friends from the Pace community got to hear an incredible interview where Judy shared the wisdom she has collected over an eventful career.

The event was introduced by Seidenberg advisory board member, Helen Altshuler, a senior engineering leader at Google, who remarked that “progressing in technology and making strides is a common goal for women and for men. The more people we can bring into this conversation, the more we can progress as a community.”

Progress was a key theme of the event. As Seidenberg student Niamh Fitzsimon opened the interview by asking about Judy’s career and advice for success, it quickly became clear that being open to different paths of progress is crucial.

“Don’t be so tunnel visioned,” Judy cautioned. “While you’re en route to doing what you want to do, there will be opportunities that come onto your radar and the key is not to be too rigid about whether it meets your checklist; whether you think it’s the right move. It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder. This idea where you’re going to get the next job then the next and the next in a linear fashion – that’s not going to happen. In a jungle gym, there are lots of different ways to get to one place. If some paths opens to you, move in that direction. You might end up having to turn back, but you’ll have learned something along the way.”

Words many of our extremely driven, motivated students needed to hear. When you are so focused on following a strict career path to get to where you want to be, you could become blinded to opportunities that offer an alternative route to the end goal – or even ones that take you somewhere else entirely, somewhere that ends up better than your original plan.

Judy also outlined her 5 steps to success. Given the 8 step plan offered by Amtrak CIO Jason Molfetas during his Big Data Innovator talk last fall, perhaps the first and foremost step should be “Come up with a list of steps”!

Judy Spitz’s 5 Steps to Success

1. Be a great storyteller

“It doesn’t matter where you are in your career,” Judy said, “Whether you’re at the beginning and you need talk to the people you work for about what you are doing and why it matters, or you’re middle management and it’s about collaboration with your peers, or whether you’re in a leadership potion and you need to motivate the people you expect to follow along, you’ve got to be able to tell a great story.

“Storytelling has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You get better by thinking about it ahead of time, finding a hook; that hook is how people follow along. And rehearse your story. There has never been one time when I’ve had to stand up and give a presentation when I haven’t rehearsed it beforehand, out loud. Just standing there and reading what you think you want to say is a cognitive process. If you just practice in your room beforehand, I guarantee you will fumble it.”

2. Think non-linearly but execute in a linear fashion

“See both the forest and the trees: you have to be able to stand back and get the big picture so you can get an idea of what matters and what doesn’t,” Judy said. By seeing the big picture, you learn which smaller parts are the most important and can execute tasks in a way that makes sense on both the minute and grand levels.

“However, you also have to be the kind of person who can go down to the minute letter and actually do the work.”

3. Have passion

“Passion is what drives you to go to work when you have reasons not to.”

4. Be accountable

“Don’t ask yourself ‘did I do what I was supposed to do?‘, but ask whether the project did what it was supposed to do. If you just think about your own performance, you’ll never get promoted. Ask people what you can do to help them.”

5. Have humility

“It’s never about you.” As close as you can get to a project, sometimes the decision you want to make isn’t always the right one for the project. Remember that it’s not about you, it’s about the work.

Continue reading part 2 of Judy Spitz’s interview here!

This was the first event in our three-event series, with the next taking place on March 22nd with Nicholas Donofrio, IBM Fellow Emeritus (Ret.) IBM Executive Vice President, Innovation and Technology, on our Westchester campus. The final event will be an interview with Austin A. Adams, Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer (Ret.), JPMorgan Chase, at our NYC campus on April 19th.

The LST Honoree Speaker Series is part of a run up to our annual benefit, the Leadership and Service in Technology Awards. Tickets are available now!

Part 2

LST Honoree Speaker Series brings award winners to Pace

A special event series will take place during March and April. The LST Honoree Speaker Series will bring past winners of the prestigious Leadership and Service in Technology (LST) award back to Pace University for a set of lunch and learn events that should be on everybody’s calendar.

Each event takes place on a Wednesday from 12-1:30pm.

As well as getting the opportunity to learn from a set of remarkable trailblazers in the field of technology, attendees will enjoy a free gourmet lunch, free swag, networking with industry leaders and experts, as well as Pace alumni and fellow students, and the chance to win $100 in a raffle!

Register for events below!

March 8 – Judy Spitz, LST Honoree

Founding Program Director: Women in Technology and Entrepreneurship in New York (WiTNY), Cornell Tech

RSVP for Judy Spitz here

March 22 – Nicholas Donofrio, LST Honoree

IBM Fellow Emeritus (Ret.) IBM Executive Vice President, Innovation and Technology

RSVP for Nicholas Donofrio here

April 19 – Austin A. Adams, LST Honoree

Moderated by Mike Zbranak, Managing Director Deputy Chief Information Officer, Chase Consumer & Community Banking, JPMorgan Chase

Executive Vice President and Chief Information Officer (Ret.), JPMorgan Chase

RSVP for Austin A. Adams here

The series is part of an exciting run-up to this year’s LST Awards Ceremony, which takes place in May. This year, Senior Executive VP and CIO of BNY Mellon, Suresh Kumar, will be recognized for his innovation within the tech field. The ceremony is a fantastic opportunity to network with professionals and Seidenberg alumni working within the technology industry.

Seidenberg alumna Lynne Marino (MS-IS ’92) gives an incredible gift: life

Lynne Marino MS-IS 93)
Lynne Marino (MS in IS ’92)

Lynne Boyles Marino graduated from the Seidenberg School in the class of ’92 with her Master’s in Information Systems. Not only has Lynne’s career since then been amazing, but she recently gave a friend an incredible gift: a kidney.

Lynne’s career has spanned working in the telecommunications and finance services industries, including working at IBM and AT&T, but it’s clear what the most rewarding thing she’s ever done is – something that, when she speaks about it, there is resounding passion in her voice.

“What I hope to do,” says Lynne, “is to inspire somebody else to be a donor.”

Just last year, Lynne underwent surgery to remove her kidney so it could be transplanted into another person. The other person was a friend and previous employee that Lynne hadn’t seen in 20 years.

But Lynne wasn’t worried about donating something so significant to someone she hadn’t seen for a long time: “She had worked for me 20 years ago and was a fantastic employee. I knew from then that she was very diligent and always followed the rules; Whatever the doctors told her to do, she would do it. We recently had a reunion and she flew from Kentucky to White Plains visit me – she has a timer on her phone that tells her when to take her anti-rejection pills.  So it looks like nothing has changed.”

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Lynne with recipient Tamara in a pre-op meeting

When Lynne heard that her friend was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, an inherited disorder that runs through her family, she knew she wanted to help. The recipient and her insurance provider covered all of the costs, so all Lynne had to do was undergo several tests, keep herself in good health, and prepare mentally for the procedure. Was she afraid? Surprisingly, no. “I felt like it was really going to be fine. Nothing was going to happen. They take really good care of the donor and put you on a wellness floor afterwards, so recovery is as painless as possible.”

Recovery is also short – just six weeks, and Lynne was back in the office after two! “I love my job!” she laughs. Like a lot of our alumni, Lynne works in finance, and even though she wasn’t able to lift anything over 10lbs during recovery, she was eager to return to work.

The recipient of Lynne’s kidney now has a clean bill of health, which is exactly what’s so wonderful about organ donation. When Lynne speaks about it, she is powerful, persuasive, and passionate. “It’s a big benefit for me to be able to say ‘Hey, this is the best gift I’ve ever given!’”

Donating a kidney is an incredible gift. At any given time, around 120,000 people are on the donor list waiting for a kidney and 15 people die every day while waiting.

Lynne with her surgeon after being cleared to go home
Lynne with her surgeon after being cleared to go home

There are many policies in place that exist to help out donors. For example, if you donate your kidney and one day in the future need a new kidney yourself, you go straight to the top of the list. Also, say a child had a disease that meant he would one day need a kidney, and his grandmother wanted to donate but it wasn’t yet needed (and when it was, she may not be around anymore), she could donate to a stranger and, when the time came for the child to need a transplant, he would be prioritized. There are some really incredible arrangements for just about any situation you can think of  – all to encourage people to donate now, knowing that they or their loved ones will be taken care of in the future.

Did Lynne suffer any lifestyle changes brought about from her donation? Given that she had to think about her response, the answer is “not really”. She has to stay hydrated (which is good for you), eat well (again, good for you), be conscious of taking any medication that could adversely affect her, and maaaybe hold off from that last glass of wine. Lynne says, “the average kidney donor lives longer than the average person, because they are quite healthy.”

This article may not convince you to hop onto the surgical table right now, but keep the possibility of donating a kidney to save someone’s life in your mind as you go through your everyday life. There are plenty of people who have donated a kidney to someone they don’t know alongside all of those who donate to loved ones.

In the meantime, there is so much you can do to help people suffering kidney disease and a whole host of other ailments.

  1. Donate blood. According to the Red Cross, around 36,000 units of red blood cells are needed every day in the USA. Every 2 seconds, someone in the US needs blood.
  2. Become an organ donor. You can get it on your driver’s license – some states automatically set you as a donor but many don’t, so check and opt-in for donation. That means if something happens to you, your body can be used to save lives. You can also download a dedicated donor card.
  3. Discuss your wishes with your family members. Even if you’re listed as an organ donor, family might step in and say no. It’s important to have a discussion where you let them know that it is your wish to help others if something happens to you.