I’m retired now after a rewarding 50-year career in public relations, first as an account executive at Burson-Marsteller, learning the business from the late Tom Mosser, then as vice president at Dorf/MJH working with the equally legendary and recently departed Bob Dorf.
Over the years I’ve pitched everything from bowling to knitting to Gore-Tex, 3M Thinsulate, Iceland Tourism, skiing in the Rockies, Orvis fly rods, and Lake Havasu City, Arizona, home of the London Bridge.
Yet the one pitch I’ll long remember is the one that recently saved my life.
You see, my kidneys decided to give up the ghost and I joined 37 million other Americans with chronic kidney disease (CKD). My kidney journey began in 2009 when I was diagnosed with cancer in my left kidney, necessitating its removal – called a nephrectomy. After 13 healthy years, as my kidney scores declined and creatinine became elevated, I secured a place on the wait lists of four hospitals – two in Denver, one in Miami and New York.
The waiting time for a deceased donor is a daunting three to five years.
Thus began a two-year campaign in search of a living kidney donor. The competition is fierce: The shortage of kidneys for transplantation continues to be a public health crisis in the U.S. More than 90,000 patients are waiting for kidney transplants, yet only about 20,000 transplants are performed each year. Annually, nearly 5,000 people on the transplant waiting list die without getting a transplant, according to Penn Medicine News (2020).
I had to become my own client, applying what I learned promoting Burlington Industries, Coleman, Du Pont, Michelin, Virgin Atlantic, and a host of other clients over the years.
My big break came when Shark Tank star Barbara Corcoran, a long time friend, posted on my behalf to her 1.1 million followers. I reached MSNBC’s Mika Brezinski through a mutual friend and she also posted about my search.
I formed an ad hoc committee of friends in the public relations and marketing fields and they provided me with a host of suggested tactics. We knew I needed a hook; “Grandpa Needs a Kidney” wasn’t sufficiently impactful so I borrowed my daughter’s striking husky-German Shepherd mix named Penny and came up with the concept of “Doggedly Seeking a Kidney – Please Save My Life.”
Another pitch that resonated with media: after traveling to Nepal twice to volunteer on cataract medical missions, and writing a book about voluntourism, here I was, a dedicated volunteer who himself was in search of a volunteer to “share their spare” as an altruistic kidney donor.
A local Boulder photographer donated his time shooting Penny and me on a hillside behind the house and the end result was a banner I could repurpose in a variety of ways.
I then began pitching like my life depended on it – because it did. I appeared three times on TV, and in numerous print and online stories, helped in part, by those celebrity posts.
I created two web sites, placed Penny’s image on four family cars, distributed flyers and business cards, conducted outreach to my 3,000 followers on social media, and received donated billboard space in the Front Range and New York City.
The effort paid off in summer 2023 when a woman who saw my story on the Denver7 ABC affiliate donated in my name. She was not a match, but by earmarking a kidney in the system with my name on it, that activated a National Kidney Registry voucher – sort of a kidney ticket. Ninety days later, a better match from an altruistic unknown donor on the West Coast was secured and I was transplanted at Denver’s Porter AdventHealth on Nov. 29, 2023, feeling both lucky and grateful.
Those of us in public relations have a unique skill that applied with creativity, persistence and compassion, can change lives for the better. This has become my new calling: starting with providing advice to 1,100 other Coloradans in need of transplant, a tiny fraction of the total need. Perhaps public relations can save their lives as it has my own.
Jeff Blumenfeld, a resident of Boulder, Colorado, is author of two books: Get Sponsored: A Funding Guide for Explorers, Adventurers, and Would-Be World Travelers (Skyhorse Publishing), and Travel With Purpose: A Field Guide to Voluntourism (Rowman & Littlefield). He’s currently working on his third book, How to Find a Kidney. j[email protected]