Outstretched hand giving heart to another hand.

To Sir with Love

Former students offer to donate kidney to save mentor’s life

For 42 years, Professor Emeritus Michael Kogan went beyond the classroom to expand his students’ minds, hearts and horizons. The philosophy and religion professor welcomed them into his home for dinner, took them to cathedrals and synagogues, and exposed them to symphony and opera.

In turn, they grew close as classmates and closer still to Kogan himself, who recently found out just how devoted his former students are when he needed a kidney transplant.

One by one, former students and friends volunteered to give Kogan a kidney, and each one was turned down for various reasons. Lots of factors play into a match – blood type, tissue match as well as physical and mental health.

Sam Bolshoi donated a kidney to a donation pool that enabled Kogan to get a transplant.
Sam Bolshoi donated a kidney to a donation pool that enabled Kogan to get a transplant.

“I can’t get my mind around the fact that anyone would be willing to take a life-threatening risk to save my life,” Kogan says. “That I had eight people who volunteered, many of them former students…It’s remarkable. I’m blessed. I really am.”

One volunteer told doctors he would “lay down his life for Kogan,” though doctors assured him he would not have to do that and ultimately, it turned out he wasn’t a match anyway.

Matt Dennis, a former student who volunteered but was not a match, took half a dozen of Kogan’s courses, from poetry to philosophy to religious studies, and says Kogan taught his students to think deeply.

“This affects everything I do now,” says Dennis, who to this day can’t look at something without thinking about its history. “The world has depth now, everywhere I look. That is why we would make that offer, or at least investigate it. How could we not offer when he’s given us the world?”

Looking for a match

For most of his life, Kogan weighed more than 300 pounds, and doctors told him he must lose 100 before they would perform kidney surgery.

He had bariatric surgery, and then started the process of losing weight and looking for a kidney donor.

He asked friends to post on Facebook and send out emails. Lisa Sargese, now a Montclair State adjunct professor who took courses with Kogan and graduated with a BA in 2000 and an MA in 2007, was one of those who helped spread the message.

“How could we not offer when he's given us the world?”

Matt Dennis,
a former student who volunteered but was not a match

“He was never good with the computer. He used to call it ‘the devil machine,’” recalls Sargese, with a laugh. “He called one day, desperate, saying, ‘Will you get on that devil machine of yours and talk to your networks to see about finding a kidney?’ So I went on Facebook and asked for help and people wanted to do whatever they could to help him.”

Ervin Nieves, now an English professor at the University of Iowa, wanted to help. In 1981, as he walked through Partridge Hall “contemplating dropping out because I felt too dumb to be in college,” he passed Kogan’s classroom and a lively discussion of Descartes’ Meditations. Kogan invited him to sit in on the class. Afterward, he went to Kogan’s office and asked him, “What is God?”

And that began a lifelong friendship. “Michael has shown me what God is through his own kindness in treating me as a worthy student, then friend and then like a son,” recalls Nieves, who credits Kogan with teaching him how to really read and love books, earn a commission in the U.S. Air Force and become intellectually capable of earning a PhD in English.

“He taught us how to think and how to be better human beings. He was never just a teacher to many of us. He was, and continues to be, family. And one always helps family,” says Nieves, whose own health concerns kept him from being a candidate.

Professor Emeritus Michael Kogan received a kidney transplant in August. Several former students offered to donate.
Professor Emeritus Michael Kogan received a kidney transplant in August. Several former students offered to donate.

Kogan was overwhelmed by the generosity of his former students and friends, but also desperate to find a donor. “I didn’t know what to do,” Kogan says.

Then, in passing conversation with the wife of a one-time student and longtime friend, he mentioned the failed search.

“Michael called and was talking to my wife and was very down,” recalls Sam Bolshoi, who took a course with Kogan in the mid- 1990s. “He said he was dying and there had been no matches yet, but he was trying to remain positive. She offered us both up as volunteers.”

While his wife’s health precluded her from giving a kidney, Bolshoi was in peak physical shape and was the first of all the volunteers to be cleared as a donor. Still he wasn’t an exact match for Kogan, so they turned to an “organ donation pool” where patients with willing donors who aren’t matches can essentially trade donors.

“He got a kidney from a man in Minnesota and my kidney went to a woman in Ohio,” Bolshoi says. “So in the end, it felt really good to be able to help two people with one donation.”

Bolshoi, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in theoretical mathematics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994, took Kogan’s T.S. Eliot course after hearing about it at a dinner at his parents’ house.

“I had moved back in with my parents after I graduated and they were friends with Professor Kogan,” he says. “It sounded so interesting. I thought I might as well take his course while I was home. I was a bit of an intellectual snob and I was surprised that it turned out to be by far the best philosophy course I had taken, anywhere.”

From then on, Kogan and Bolshoi became and remained close friends, often attending The Metropolitan Opera together. Bolshoi says he never had a moment’s hesitation about donating a kidney to help save Kogan’s life, even during the long months of recovery.

“I was so happy to be able to help him,” says Bolshoi. “He’s like family.”

Kogan says that spending his life doing what he loved – 42 years of teaching, with 24 of those as the chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion – was enough to make him a lucky man. But the outpouring of love by students and friends is beyond measure and more than he could have dreamed.

“How do you ever adequately thank someone for giving a part of themselves to save you? Or thank those who were willing,” he queries. “I will spend the rest of my life trying. What do you do for the person who gives you your life? I owe Sam everything.

“He has definitely secured himself a place in heaven.”