Happy anniversary, brother

My brother and I were as competitive as any two siblings could be.

It didn’t matter if it were basketball or soccer or family card games. We were both intense as kids. But if I was a Type A, he was Type A-plus, perhaps because he was younger. And like any siblings only 14 months apart, we often fought, too, always looking for the upper hand, always trying to one-up the other.

We were close, yet we were not. We were alike, yet we were different. We loved each other, but didn’t always like each other.

When I needed him most, though, Geoff was there, not hesitating to give me a kidney when I needed a transplant. That was 30 years ago today.

As I reflect on just how lucky I am, fortunate to be healthy after all these years, I can’t help but think how that act of incredible generosity was a harbinger of the kind of man my brother would become.

Everyone has his or her own barometer for greatness, what puts someone on a plane above others. But Geoff literally changed my life that day, turning me from a sick young man with doubts about his future to a rejuvenated human being, with the whole world opened before him, ready to embark on….life.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t thank God and my younger brother for my good fortune. He altered my life's path in a way neither of us could have imagined, gambling on his own health to try to give his often obnoxious and overbearing older brother a chance to be healthy.

The story begins in Williamsville, New York, outside of Buffalo. I was 17, having just finished my junior year in high school, eager to revel in my last year of high school, certain to be a starter on the soccer team, maybe even all-league. I was playing in a summer tournament when I started to notice my endurance wasn’t what it had been.

I told my parents, saw a doctor and then came the fateful family dinner. My father told me blood tests had shown something amiss with my kidneys and more tests had to be done. They were, and the conclusion came: I had only been born with one kidney and the other one was chronically infected. Someday I would have to go on dialysis or have a transplant.

Oh, and soccer: That was over. Too dangerous.

It’s hard to describe the impact of such a revelation on a 17-year-old. Like any teen, I had felt invincible. Then, suddenly, I was taking meds to slow the atrophy of my remaining kidney, expected to get on with my life with this Damoclean sword – a kidney transplant! – hanging over my head.

I managed to hold off the crisis until my second year of graduate school at the University of Michigan. But I was pretty sick by then, and it was time to consider a transplant.

We settled on the Cleveland Clinic, and my father decided to be tested first. He was quickly disqualified, though, and that’s where Geoff came in.

Imagine his situation: He was just starting his career, having graduated from Dartmouth and landed a job at Hewlett-Packard in the San Francisco Bay area. He would have to interrupt that first job, agree to live his life with only one kidney and donate another to his brother.
Looking back, it seems fitting that Geoff turned out to be a 100 percent tissue-typing match. Indeed, we had occasionally been mistaken for twins as kids.

So it was a go. And on Nov. 10, 1983, Dr. Anthony Novick put one of Geoff’s healthy kidneys into my body. I remember waking up after months of feeling queasy all of the time and suddenly I was the proverbial new person. I was alive again.

Geoff had the more painful recovery – he had a rib removed to get to his kidney. But he bounced back quickly and returned to the West Coast in no time, getting on with his life.

I had a scare a few weeks after the operation – my body appeared to be rejecting the kidney. But it was a minor blip, and I have been remarkably healthy ever since. My amazing nephrologist in Las Vegas, Marvin Bernstein, calls me his “miracle patient,” always telling me after my checkups to just “live my life.”

I have. And so has Geoff. Oh, has he lived.

Geoff is healthy, too, having followed a trajectory I somehow knew he would when we were kids, and I sensed he would become a brilliant entrepreneur. (I still kid him that we signed this contract, where he was supposed to cut me in….)

From Hewlett-Packard, Geoff started up one of the first Internet search engines (Four 11), which was swallowed up by Yahoo!, making him instantly wealthy and a vice president of that company. He was there for about a decade before leaving for another startup, investing in other companies and, with his beautiful wife, Andrea, raising three beautiful children in the Bay Area.

He is now involved in two companies doing groundbreaking things, lending his expertise to improve society. Y Combinator injects capital into prospective startups to improve their chances of success – he has helped companies you have heard of (Reddit) and many you have not. And he is transforming lower education in this country with Imagine K-12, which helps companies that want to apply technology to improve secondary education.

My brother could have retired years ago, traveled the world and lived a life of leisure. Don’t get me wrong: He’s done some of that. He may not be Richard Branson, but the man with one kidney has been quite adventurous, skiing in far-flung spots and running marathons.

But Geoff’s generosity, epitomized by what he gave me 30 years ago, has defined his life. It’s not just that he has taken what he learned as a Silicon Valley executive and applied it to trying to make the world better. Geoff has been unfailingly generous with every member of our family, moving my parents into a gorgeous condo near where he lives, helping out his siblings when we needed money or advice.

I am humbled and grateful today to the man who not just changed my life, but made my life possible. I have known for a long time what I did not know as kids about my younger brother during our most competitive moments in sports or academics:

I can’t compete.