They met during her gap year in Israel, writes Caron Kemp. Originally from Mexico, she made Aliyah to be with him and together they lived, then wed and went on to have two children on the Kibbutz where it all began. But Leony and Yuval Arav’s love story runs far deeper after a cure for her grave illness was found in a quite unlikely place.
Leony was 31 and living in Ra’anana when she decided to join her local gym. A keen cyclist and competitive triathlete the routine doctor’s certificate required before membership was granted appeared to be nothing more than a formality.
But when her GP noticed she had abnormally high blood pressure, further tests revealed the full extent of the situation. Despite being completely asymptomatic Leony was diagnosed with the genetic life threatening condition Polycystic Kidney Disease.
Knowing that the only solution to the problem – which causes multiple cysts to develop on the kidneys – was dialysis or a transplant, Leony and Yuval started exploring their options.
“It was a very frightening time,” reveals the Radlett United Synagogue member. “There are so few donors in Israel anyway that I realised if I went on a transplant list it would probably have to come from somewhere else, but I just didn’t know where.”
However it wasn’t until the family relocated to Radlett in 2006 that Leony’s condition deteriorated enough to warrant treatment.
“Until then I actually felt fine,” she explains. “But I started feeling very tired. I couldn’t do the normal everyday things like cooking and taking my sons to school. I was grey and I was finding it very hard to breathe and I soon became almost completely housebound”
With her kidneys shutting down Leony was told she had a year before they stopped working altogether. It was then that she explored the idea of a living donor, where someone whose fully functioning kidney is a good match, willingly gives it to the person in need.
Accepting that testing her family was the right place to start her search she was nevertheless surprised when her husband was revealed to be an almost perfect match.
“The doctors at Hammersmith Hospital asked me if I had married him on purpose,” she muses. “They often jokingly questioned whether we were secretly related. While it isn’t impossible that he could be a match it obviously wasn’t the most likely option so it was quite a shock.”
Nevertheless the euphoria at finding a potential way out of this difficult situation was not without its heartache.
“I really didn’t want to take it from him,” she rationalises. “When you love someone the last thing you want to do is hurt them but we didn’t have another option. We have two boys and we had to think about them and what we would do if something happened to me. It was not an easy time and there was a lot of fear.”
As Leony’s kidney function dropped to below 15 percent, she and Yuval were simultaneously operated on so husband could give wife the ultimate gift of life.
And last week marked the second anniversary of that fateful day. Now working part time at Jewish Care, fulfilling her lifelong ambition to cook professionally and a fully-fledged member of her local gym, Leony is indebted to the man who made it all happen.
“Saying thank you will never be enough,” she admits. “Of course we are so grateful to the NHS system but to Yuval there are no words. He gave me my voice back, he brought me back, he gave me my life and I owe him everything. Now we really are a couple and we feel more connected than ever before.”
But increased fatigue and monthly hospital visits are a stark reminder that life has not always been so straightforward and the whole experience has put the way she parents 16-year-old Daniel and 14-year-old Jonathan – both students at Borehamwood’s Yavneh College – into sharp focus.
“I want my sons to always live life to the full because really we don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” she says. “There was a time when I didn’t even know if I would see my sons’ barmitzvahs.
“I had forgotten what it felt like to live life properly and it feels good. I just want them to take every opportunity and not let anything pass them by. That is what I want us all to learn from this.”