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At This Wedding, Bride Gave Best Gift

Family: When her husband-to-be couldn't donate his kidney, she offered one of hers to her future mother-in-law.

May 28, 2000|From Washington Post

This is a love story about two people who were meant for each other. There's a fateful meeting, a sacrifice, a joyous wedding. It's just like a romance novel--except the two main characters are a bride and her mother-in-law.

Sara "Gambi" Gamble Gilbertson married Maurice "Moe" Cho Benesch last week. All weddings are special, but this one united two families with an extraordinary bond: Last year, Gilbertson donated one of her kidneys to Eunok Benesch--the mother of the man she loved--and saved her life.

"I am getting a wonderful, wonderful new daughter," a tearful Benesch told guests at the wedding reception in Washington, D.C. "I love you, Gamble. Without you, I couldn't stand here today."

Needless to say, there were no mother-in-law jokes at this wedding.

The story begins five years ago, when Gambi and Moe met at a computer trade show. Moe, now 37, was CEO of a local software development company, V!Studios. Gambi, now 35, became a client, then joined the company as director for project operations. She's blond and outgoing; he's dark and a bit shy.

Both mothers started playing cupid: "My mom met him and said, 'I think you should go out with him,' " said the bride. "I said, 'I can't. He's my boss.' His mom met me and said, 'I think you should go out with her.' And he said, 'I can't. She's an employee.' "

But love found a way. "I knew he was the one from the very beginning," said Gambi. "He's my soul mate." She made the discreet first moves--museum dates, art galleries--until they finally admitted their feelings for each other.

So they became a couple, and life was great--until Moe's mom was diagnosed with kidney disease in late 1998. Eunok, 62, needed a new kidney, but her husband of 37 years, Ralph, wasn't a donor match. Moe was tested and matched well enough; the transplant was scheduled for January 1999. But on the morning of surgery, in the operating room no less, the doctor called off the operation: The disease had progressed to the point that Moe's kidney probably would be rejected by his mother's body. (During pregnancy, mothers develop antibodies that make it difficult for most children to donate in the first place.)

Everyone was devastated. Eunok went on dialysis and was put on a general waiting list for a donor kidney. About 45,000 people in the United States are waiting for a transplant. Some wait up to four years; some don't live that long. The chances of a match were harder in this case: Eunok is Korean, and Asians and other minorities are less likely to donate organs, she says.

*

Gambi decided she'd try to donate one of her kidneys. She had seen "a look of disappointment in Moe's eyes, and so I thought I wanted to finish what he started." Quietly, after talking to her parents, grandparents and doctors, she began testing to determine if she might be a compatible donor. An acceptable match was unlikely--Eunok is Korean, Gambi of Norwegian descent.

In a storybook twist, it turns out she was a better match than Moe--something almost impossible for unrelated people. Even then, Eunok was reluctant to accept out of concern for Gambi's health and the health of future grandchildren. After a lot of reassurances from both families, the operation took place on June 15 at Georgetown University Hospital. Gambi was discharged in two days and back at work in two weeks.

How do you thank your son's girlfriend for saving your life? Six months later, Moe and Gambi were about to leave for a millennium fantasy trip to Africa. They were going to hike Mount Kilimanjaro to prove that you could do "anything" after donating a kidney.

Eunok took her son aside; she knew Moe planned to propose during the trip. She pulled off the diamond ring she had received from her husband on their 30th anniversary.

"There's no way I can repay her," said Eunok. "But I wanted to express how much I appreciated her. I wanted to give her something I cherished. I asked my son, 'If you used this as the engagement ring, I would be very honored.' "

*

So on Dec. 26, on top of the 19,332-foot peak in Tanzania, Moe dropped to his knees and asked his love to be his wife.

"I had to take big breaths--the air is very thin up there--so I could only say five or six words at a time," said Moe. "I said, 'Will you do me the honor, the privilege, of being my wife?' " The ring was in his pocket, but it was so cold and windy he was afraid it might blow away if he tried to put it on her hand.

She said yes.

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