HBO Exec Receives Kidney Donation From College Friend

Originally published at  on March 10, 2015


cropped-bph.jpgRobert Roth was on his back, staring up at fluorescent lights. His kidney transplant surgery was just moments away.

The HBO executive’s thoughts volleyed between his mom, who died three decades earlier from complications related to a kidney transplant, and his best friend, Stuart, who at the moment was across the hall having his left kidney harvested.

“It was almost one of those out-of-body experiences,” Roth, 58, said, “where you know what’s happening is real, but you can’t come to grips with the fact that momentarily, you will be cut open and your best friend’s organ will be placed inside of you.”

Roth met Stuart Zeitlin – the man who saved his life in December – during their first week as freshmen at Stony Brook University, back in 1973 when construction of the hospital and the Health Sciences Center was kicking off on the other side of Nicolls Road.

Zeitlin, then of Manhasset Hills, quickly struck up a friendship with Roth during his visits to see a high school pal a few doors down from Roth’s room in Irving College. Together with another freshman in the same residence hall – Kenny Cohen from Coney Island – Zeitlin and Roth formed a trio that remains intact today.

The three spent that fall sharing common interests, while pushing each other down the hall in shopping carts and rooting their hearts out for the New York Mets in the World Series. They then spent their lives cultivating their bond – graduating together from Stony Brook in 1977, serving as groomsmen in each other’s wedding parties, celebrating the births of each of their children, and making sure to routinely meet at Ben’s Kosher Deli in Greenvale for lunch or dinner.

“We had similar interests and similar backgrounds,” recalled Cohen, 59, who went on to medical school and is now a cardiologist in Lake Success. “We were part of the Stony Brook experience – when much of the campus was still being constructed and we had to walk through the mud and around piles of dirt to get to class. And we loved it.”

Cohen is credited with paving the way for Zeitlin, 59, to donate a kidney to Roth on December 18 at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

“Stu could hardly stand having blood drawn. The sight of blood had always made him queasy,” said Roth, who returned to work as Executive Vice President and CFO at HBO eight weeks after the operation.

“Stu was initially reluctant. Kenny was instrumental in getting Stu to realize that if there was any chance of finding a donor, he might be my best shot,” continued Roth, who personally and through HBO has generously supported Stony Brook and the Stony Brook Film Festival.


Robert Roth

Roth, who lives in Weston, Connecticut with his wife Linda, would not consider accepting a kidney donation from either of his two adult children. He said the risk would be too high for them, considering his type of kidney disease was hereditary.

Roth’s mother Blanche died at 59 within weeks of receiving a kidney transplant from a cadaver in 1985, and his brother Richard, a CNN correspondent, is living with a kidney transplanted 17 years ago from a deceased donor.

Cohen believed it was important to get the message across to Zeitlin – who like Roth has Type O blood – that donating a kidney is a low-risk procedure.

“You have to be by definition extremely healthy to donate a kidney,” said the heart doctor, who lives in Glen Head with his wife Hilari. “It’s absolutely proven that your lifespan is not affected at all. There are even some reports that say patients live longer because the donor feels so altruistic that it actually improves their health.”

Roth said it wasn’t long before Zeitlin, who has three adult children with his wife Judy and five grandchildren under 4, became “gung-ho” in his zeal to move ahead with the surgery.

On the day of the surgery, Roth and Zeitlin declined a ride to the hospital and instead made the short walk from their hotel.

“Rob and I laughed that it reminded us of the walks to the lecture center at Stony Brook or to the Light Engineering Building, where we took our calculus exams in 1973,” said Zeitlin, a sales manager with Big City/Danken Auto Parts in Brooklyn. “This time, however, the stakes were different and larger.”

Shortly after they were admitted at the hospital, Roth and Zeitlin were separated.

“We never had a chance to say goodbye or good luck,” said Zeitlin, whose operation began about 40 minutes before Roth’s.

In the moments before Zeitlin was wheeled into surgery, the North Bellmore grandfather said he felt relief that the operation was at hand because the “countdown to surgery” had become exhausting. But he was also very scared.

“I had never had surgery before – the nurse informed me that a bris, or circumcision, didn’t count,” quipped Zeitlin, the jokester of the three Stony Brook alums, before turning serious. “I was experiencing fear – fear of not waking up and fear of my kidney not taking in Rob.”

Four hours after the pensive pre-surgery moments for Zeitlin and Roth, they were both in recovery. Roth’s body was immediately adjusting to his friend’s kidney. The surgery was a success.

“I have a new lease on life because I had been living with a dark cloud over my head, knowing this was a degenerative condition and that I had very limited options,” said Roth. “Having Stu agree to do this was really like having a knight in shining armor. It is something I am eternally grateful for.”


Stony Brook University alums (L to R) Dr. Ken Cohen, Stuart Zeitlin and Robert Roth at Yale-New Haven Hospital after Zeitlin donated a kidney to Roth. The three met as freshmen in 1973 at Stony Brook Univ.

Cohen calls Zeitlin, “a bona fide hero.”

“Stu was a guy afraid to give blood. Imagine the bravery it took to donate his kidney,” Cohen said. “Rob is blessed to have him as a friend. I’m blessed to have them both as friends.”

The three Stony Brook alums hope their kidney transplant story will inspire others to volunteer to be living organ donors.

“There is a tremendous shortage of kidneys. If we can get people to donate … you’re talking about thousands and thousands of lives to be saved,” Cohen said. “People who receive live kidneys do much better than those who receive one from a cadaver. We want to make people understand that it really can be done; that it is not as scary as it seems.”


With Football and Hazing, History Repeats Itself


It was theater in its ugliest form:

Two half-naked freshman football players being forced by teammates twice their size to lick each other’s nipples.

An audience that by most accounts exceeded a dozen players eagerly watched the degradation – and cheered. It only got worse – far worse – for the pint-size 13-year-olds.

Next came demands to simulate oral sex on a banana held against the groin of one of the three attackers – much to the delight of the ogling crowd. Then, the ringleader in this varsity trio lowered the hazing attack to new depths.

Witnesses said that with rock music blaring and duct tape at the ready to drown out the screams, a hulking 16-year-old lineman grabbed a broomstick and dipped it in Mineral Ice.

This was part of the horrific pre-season football camp scene in August 2003 that landed three upperclassmen from Long Island’s Mepham High School in jail and led to the cancellation of Mepham’s football season. The depiction above – describing one of the many attacks on Mepham freshmen inside a cabin at a sleep-away camp in Honesdale, Pa. – kicked off a story I wrote back then, as a reporter for New York’s Daily News.

The paper, committed to being the first media outlet to identify the teens accused in the attacks, wanted to deliver a strong, compelling story. Editors said the writing and reporting were fine, but what I submitted was too strong. What did get published was a version that toned down the details and pulled back on the drama, but was nonetheless influential in that it named the accused.


Daily News Dec. 21, 2003

The details that began to emerge last week of the alleged hazing attacks involving members of New Jersey’s Sayreville War Memorial High School football team are no less shocking. This fall – before school district administrators appropriately cancelled the remainder of the season on Oct. 7 – freshman football players were routinely subjected to sexual attacks carried out by seniors during a locker room ritual, police said.

Seven players – aged 15 to 17 – were criminally charged Oct. 10 for their involvement in sexual assaults on younger players. One parent, informed by his son, told a reporter with NJ Advance Media for that a victim would be held by multiple older players while a finger was inserted into his rectum. The same finger was sometimes placed in the freshman’s mouth, according to the report.

At the time of the arrests, the coaches – except the assistant arrested for steroids possession a week before the hazing story broke – still had their jobs.

Hazing – in varying degrees of severity – exists at all levels of team sports. In the NFL, summer camps each year yield images of rookies wrapped and immobilized by yards and yards of athletic tape.

Last month, rookies across Major League Baseball were encouraged by the veterans on their respective teams to carry out goofy public acts. On the team’s website, the New York Mets proudly posted embarrassing photos of sheepish-looking rookies pushed into parading around the clubhouse dressed in feminine super hero costumes.

Given how widespread hazing is, it cannot be eliminated. And nor should it be – so long as it’s all in good fun, it’s not dangerous and the participants are willing. However, it should be carefully monitored and contained, particularly at the high school level.

Coaches may want to rein in the seemingly good-natured hazing that calls on freshmen to clean the field or carry off all the equipment after practice. Simply because this type of delegating makes an impression on young minds that the lowerclassman is something lesser than the rest of the team.

Another factor to consider is that when a school team’s hazing customs go unchecked, the bullying will grow more degrading every season. In many instances, each class looks to top its predecessor.

Consider that during Mepham football’s 2002 pre-season camp, the worst hazing act was a swirly, which involves holding someone upside down and dipping the person’s head into a toilet bowl as it is flushed.

Seems mild when you look at what happened at their camp in 2003.

With one 250-pound lineman sitting on top of the fully-naked victim, the equally beefy ringleader of the Mepham hazing attack began violating the freshman with a broomstick that had been dipped in Mineral Ice. Duct-tape muffled the screams. Laughter from the spectators and the beat of the music took care of the muffles.

Back and forth, the attackers bounced between two freshmen. Friends since kindergarten, the two teen victims were now linked as objects facing bizarre brutality.

Similar attacks were repeated throughout the five-day camp, with the attackers adding beatings and pine cones and golf balls to their sadistic repertoire. Those objects were also dipped in Mineral Ice.

By some accounts, the attackers grew tired of the assault and allowed the victims to return to their bunks with golf balls still inside them.


Wayne County, Pa., court documents

Photo: By trowel317 via Flickr