It seemed like a normal work day in Gas Distribution & Field Construction, a few weeks before the 2020 pandemic hit, but when a coworker entered Office Administrator Liz Sylvester’s office on a routine matter – Sylvester knew something was wrong. That encounter turned into a blessing that has earned Sylvester a new title, “God sister,” after she donated her kidney to her coworker Bernice Rivera Adams’ elder sister, Marilyn, and likely saved her life.
“Liz is just a super human being all around,” said Bernice, project controls manager, Gas System Modernization, who has known Liz for more than 5 years. “It took my breath away, just the thought of her offering so quickly.”
Liz Sylvester didn’t know Marilyn Rivera, who had been on dialysis for nearly 5 years before the successful kidney transplant took place in May 2021. She didn’t know of her depression, or anxiety or belief that she would never receive a kidney.
“I can’t even explain why I did what I did. When I was talking to Bernice I just felt at that moment it was something I had to do,” Sylvester said. “It is life changing. It’s a good feeling I have. Every day I wake up and say ‘Wow, I really helped somebody.’ Maybe this is what I was put on this earth to do.”
Liz Sylvester said she may have been more inclined to help because of her 12-year experience taking care of her own mother, Gerri Kuo, who needed a heart transplant, but had too many complications to receive one. Kuo passed in 2014, three months after surviving a stroke while in surgery.
“It was a traumatic time and my kids were young,” Sylvester said. “It didn’t end well for my mother, but I knew this was something I could do for somebody.” She also said she has a 53-year-old brother who was born with only one kidney, which never kept him from living a “perfectly fine” life.
This isn’t the first time Sylvester has made a quick, life changing decision. When she was 24, after losing a good job, Sylvester saw a commercial, signed up and spent 4 years as a “radio man” in the U.S. Navy, before joining PSE&G. And it’s at PSE&G where she met her husband of 20 years, Scott Sylvester, senior customer operations supervisor, Harmon Cove District Operations.
“My wife has a huge heart,” Scott Sylvester said. “She has all of the characteristics that I love. She is task oriented, smart, attractive…and she’s a great role model for our daughter. I’ve told my wife this, ‘People have heroes, you are my hero. I just can’t believe you would do this for somebody.’ It just boggles my mind. I have so much respect, love and awe of this, because I’ve got to tell you, I’m not sure I could do it.”
Never back out
The first complication the couple had was thinking about whether either of their teen children might need a kidney one day. But Sylvester’s doctor told them it would be rare for the need to arise before decades and at that point Sylvester’s kidney wouldn’t be viable to donate.
The next complication was COVID-19. It distracted medical staff and added extra tests and delays to an already arduous process, to the point where Sylvester was hounding the hospital for test results and next steps. It also meant that Sylvester had to go through very difficult procedures alone, because visitors weren’t allowed in medical facilities. Even after COVID-19 started waning this spring, before Scott put up a fuss the hospital told him he wouldn’t be allowed to accompany Sylvester for the transplant procedure and recovery.
It gave Sylvester plenty of time and excuses for backing out – but she said her resolve only wavered once, the night before surgery. She asked Scott if she was doing the right thing, and he provided just the comfort and support she needed.
Even Bernice told Sylvester that she wouldn’t hold her to her commitment.
“There were times my sister didn’t even know if she wanted to do this and Liz would cheer her on and say, ‘Yes, we’re going to do this,’” Bernice said. “Even after the transplant, Liz was up and moving and trying to get my sister up and moving. She’s just incredible. She’s just that extra strength we needed to get through this.”
A giving nature
District Manager, Regulatory Policy & Procedure Chris LaRossa, who remembers overhearing Liz say she would get tested to see if she was a donor match, was surprised to learn after a year that things had progressed to the point of surgery.
“The first time they met was a few days before the transplant,” LaRossa said. “It’s an incredible story, and we need to celebrate Liz.”
Sylvester said she didn’t tell many people before the surgery, allowing herself room to change her mind but never needing that space.
“If you can help somebody, why wouldn’t you, especially nowadays when you know how things are and you can live a normal healthy life without a second kidney,” Sylvester said.
Sylvester’s manager, Gas Administrative Manager Ben Sieradzki, said that he wasn’t surprised when Liz informed him she was moving forward with this, not just because of the experience with her mom, but it is just her nature to help people anyway she can.
“Liz is all about action and getting things done – it’s her passion,” Sieradzki said. “This goes above and beyond anyone’s expectation and just shows what extraordinary people we have all around the company.”
Of course no one is more thrilled than Marilyn, who now chats with Sylvester as often as she can.
“I know it’s a healthy kidney because Liz is a strong, beautiful, healthy person. The kidney, to me right now, is gold,” Marilyn said. “She gave me a second chance at life. I truly love her as a sister, my God sister.”