Aretha Swift advertises for a kidney

One of 24 billboards spreading the word of Aretha Swift’s urgent need. RONNIE POLANECZKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF
One of 24 billboards spreading the word of Aretha Swift’s urgent need. RONNIE POLANECZKY / DAILY NEWS STAFF
Posted: June 07, 2012

HOW MANY billboard owners does it take to snag a kidney?

Ten — if one of them is an obedient son. Luckily for Aretha Swift, Thaddeus Bartkowski is a very obedient son.

A few months ago, Bartkowski’s mom was listening to KYW radio while driving and heard a story about Swift. Swift’s kidneys had failed, but no one among her family and friends was a suitable match to donate a kidney to her. So she was placed on a waiting list to receive one from a cadaver or living donor. The average wait is five years.

The KYW story was about a fundraiser that Aretha held to buy space on a billboard to advertise her need.

"My mom called and said, ‘You should contact this woman,’" says Bartkowski, 32, co-founder of Catalyst Outdoor Advertising, in Devon. "She never calls while she’s driving unless she thinks something is really important. I thought I should listen to her."

And that’s why, as of Friday, Swift’s cause now graces 24 digital billboards in places like King of Prussia, Reading, the Jersey shore and even — ta dah — Times Square.

They show a lovely photo of Swift alongside the words, "You have two, I only need one to live." Viewers are then directed to a website, www.AKidneyForAretha.com, to learn more.

"It feels great to take the knowledge normally used to communicate about products and services and apply it to help Aretha," says Bartkowski, who donated two billboards to the effort and coaxed nine other billboard guys to pony up space. The ads will run for two months and are worth $260,000. Roll in the gratis services of local Gillespie Group, which created the digital images and website, and that’s quite a response from a dutiful son.

"Once you meet Aretha and her family and see how wonderful they are, you think, ‘This has got to happen,’" he says.

The love is mutual.

"Thaddeus didn’t know me from Adam and he’s done all this," says Swift, 52, who is separated, lives in Roslyn and has three children. "And he’s only 32! He’s so impressive!"

Until kidney failure forced her into retirement in 2010, Swift had been employed for 16 years as a revitalization coordinator for Montgomery County, working with Norristown residents to reclaim their struggling neighborhoods. The job became impossible as the diabetes she’d developed in pregnancy advanced, killing her kidneys and leaving her too sick to crawl off the couch.

Dialysis, which scrubs her blood the way her kidneys should, has returned her energy. But it comes with complications and tethers her to a machine for four hours, three times a week.

"It’s overwhelming," says Swift, who was so distraught on her first trip to DaVita Dialysis, in Willow Grove, that she clung to her elderly mother and wept like a baby. "There are some very sick people there, people missing limbs. I keep telling myself, ‘This is temporary.’ I make sure to smile, dress nicely and wear makeup to stay positive."

While the billboard campaign has cheered her, it gives pause to medical ethicist Art Caplan, editor of The Ethics of Organ Transplantation.

"Obviously, I’d never begrudge anyone the effort to save their own life," says Caplan, who has seen patients use billboards, Facebook and other media campaigns to publicize their need.

"But there’s an issue of fairness to consider. What about people who don’t have the ability to promote themselves? I’d rather see someone offer a kidney to an organ-procurement center and let the center decide who needs it the most."

Besides, he adds, donor campaigns are rarely successful.

"Living donors want to give to people they know. The idea that someone would see a billboard and say, ‘Let me get tested, miss days, undergo a painful surgery and recovery’ — it’s a lot of effort for a stranger."

That’s why Swift’s website gives a good sense of who she is, what she’s done, what she believes in. Will it entice a legion of strangers to donate? Probably not. But Swift doesn’t need a legion. She needs just one.

And she needs one quickly, because the longer she waits for a kidney, the greater her chance of becoming too sick to undergo the procedure at all. That happens often in the transplant world, where 92,000-plus people need a kidney, but only about 16,800 patients got one last year.

Bucks County’s Jerry Alampi was one of them, thanks to a billboard, donated to his cause and posted on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, that read "Will you be my angel? I need a kidney." A resulting TV-news story grabbed the heart of a veterinarian named Marian Boden who’d always hoped to donate a kidney. She thought Alampi resembled her brother — a sign, she concluded, that her time had come. She turned out to be a perfect match.

Next week, Alampi and Boden will celebrate together the first anniversary of the successful transplantation.

"My advice [to Swift] is to go for it," says Alampi, 65, who teaches driver’s ed in the Central Bucks school district and feels great. "Get your story out there, tell everyone you know. You’ll find your angel."

As of yesterday, two people who had seen Swift’s billboards were interested in learning more about donating to her.

"If this works, it would be a miracle," says Swift, whose goal, post-transplant, is to run an advocacy group for dialysis patients.

"I’ll call it ‘Swift Advocates,’?" she says. "I will be so thankful, I will give back forever."

Contact polaner@phillynews.com. Call 215-854-2217. Blog: www.phillynews.com/ronnieblog. Twitter: @RonniePhilly.

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