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updated: 5/17/2018 8:05 AM

Constable: 'Bagel Man needs a kidney,' employees' T-shirts say

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  • Video: Kidney donor needed

  • Once Upon A Grill owner Gerry Geffen's employees in Northbrook show their support for the man who has helped them all and needs a kidney.

      Once Upon A Grill owner Gerry Geffen's employees in Northbrook show their support for the man who has helped them all and needs a kidney.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Claudio Rogel, manager of Once Upon A Grill in Northbrook, supports his boss Gerry Geffen's quest for a new kidney and wears a shirt saying, "The Bagel Man Needs a Kidney."

      Claudio Rogel, manager of Once Upon A Grill in Northbrook, supports his boss Gerry Geffen's quest for a new kidney and wears a shirt saying, "The Bagel Man Needs a Kidney."
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Gerry Geffen of Lincolnshire, owner of Once Upon A Grill in Northbrook, sits in his restaurant as his friend Bruce Siegel of Highland Park stops by to say hello. Siegel was surprised to hear his friend needs a donated kidney, news employees are trying to get out by wearing T-shirts declaring "The Bagel Man Needs a Kidney."

      Gerry Geffen of Lincolnshire, owner of Once Upon A Grill in Northbrook, sits in his restaurant as his friend Bruce Siegel of Highland Park stops by to say hello. Siegel was surprised to hear his friend needs a donated kidney, news employees are trying to get out by wearing T-shirts declaring "The Bagel Man Needs a Kidney."
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 

Gerry Geffen needs a new kidney, and those are hard to come by.

His two adult children can't give one, because if Geffen's condition is inheritable they can't afford to be short a kidney.

The organ-donor list is a dubious option, since the wait is about five years and Geffen is 75, has diabetes that led to two toes being amputated, and has lost only 60 of the 80 pounds he says he needs to shed to be considered for a transplant waiting list in the four states where he has tried.

But a patient who shows up with a living donor can get a transplant without going on the waiting list, so the suburban restaurateur is turning to T-shirts in his quest for a new kidney.

"The Bagel Man Needs A Kidney," say the T-shirts worn by more than 100 employees at his seven restaurants who are trying to find an organ donor through his www.onceuponfamily.com website.

"Doctors told me to lose weight and stop drinking that Diet Coke," says Geffen, who used to drink two quarts of pop a day and had a hole cut in his desk to accommodate his cup. "I didn't know what a glass of water was. I feel so much better drinking water."

Diagnosed with kidney failure in 2016, the Lincolnshire resident was inspired by the tale earlier this year about a sick dad who used a T-shirt to find a kidney donor.

"He wore a shirt to Disney World and this guy saw it and donated a kidney," says Libby Lauria, a cousin of Geffen. It wasn't quite that simple, but a photo of New Jersey resident Rob Leibowitz, 60, and his kids (ranging in age from 15 to 32) at Disney World last August wearing shirts asking for a kidney donor went viral on social media.

Dozens of people voluntarily applied to be kidney donors. Eventually, Indiana dad Richie Sully was a match and donated his kidney in January, and everybody reportedly is doing well.

In 2013, 17,600 kidney transplants were performed in the United States, and less than a third of those kidneys came from living donors, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. Geffen says his search for potential donors might not help him but could benefit one of the more than 100,000 people nationwide who are on waiting lists for donated kidneys.

"There are so many people on that list," Geffen says, and he'd like to help others.

Since he opened his first restaurant, Gerry's Deli, 45 years ago in Buffalo Grove, where he lived with his wife, Sonia, Geffen has been helping others, including employees at his Once Upon A Bagel eateries in Highland Park and Winnetka, Once Upon A Grill and Once Upon A Deli in Northbrook, The Mean Wiener in Highwood, Lucky Fish On Sheridan in Highwood, and Lucky Fish On Shermer in Northbrook.

"When I needed a car, he wrote me a check for $10,000 and said, 'Go buy a car.' When I bought my first house, this guy signed a letter to let me buy it," Claudio Rogel, right, says of his boss, Gerry Geffen.
  "When I needed a car, he wrote me a check for $10,000 and said, 'Go buy a car.' When I bought my first house, this guy signed a letter to let me buy it," Claudio Rogel, right, says of his boss, Gerry Geffen. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

"This guy is very nice to me," says Claudio Rogel, a Gurnee resident who started as a dishwasher, became a busboy and eventually worked his way up to manager of Once Upon A Grill. "When I needed a car, he wrote me a check for $10,000 and said, 'Go buy a car.' When I bought my first house, this guy signed a letter to let me buy it."

That generosity could inspire potential kidney donors.

"Employees are starting to come forward," says Steve Geffen, who runs his dad's restaurants.

Without a donated kidney, Geffen has to endure five-hour dialysis treatments three days a week. It hurts and is boring, admits Geffen, who quit his first job repairing jewelry as a "bench man" for a jeweler because the only interesting thing that happened was when a pigeon landed on the window sill. But Geffen says many of the dialysis patients are worse off than he is.

"I've been blessed," Geffen says, explaining how he focuses on the joy of having been married for 51 years to a wonderful wife, having two great kids and four grandchildren ("three grandsons and one princess"). "I lost two toes, but I've got eight good ones. That's how I look at everything."

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