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Stranger donates his kidney to father of 5: 'I'll thank him for the rest of my life'

It's the incredible story of how a T-shirt changed the life of a father in acute kidney failure.

by Donna Freydkin /  / Updated  / Source: TODAY

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Last Thursday, Robert Leibowitz arrived at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center surrounded by his loving cadre of five children. He said a little prayer. And afterward he "had a live organ put into my body,” Leibowitz told Megyn Kelly.

On the day of the surgery, he was more than ready. “I was so happy. I was praying it would be a success. All my kids were there. It was so incredible. My kidney function has become normal," Leibowitz said.

You may have heard of Leibowitz. He’s the self-described “tough guy” and single father of five who has been raising his kids solo while also battling chronic kidney failure. He endured dialysis 4 hours a day, three days a week.

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His prognosis: Bad. Very bad. He’d been on dialysis for three years when his doctor told him he’d need a new kidney and he was placed on donor lists. Sadly, none of his kids were matches. Not one to wallow, Leibowitz knew others, like those with incurable cancers, had it worse. “And you have to have hope,” he said.

So Leibowitz decided to take his health into his own hands — actually, make it his back. Last August, he was at the Magic Kingdom theme park at Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, with his kids, when he managed to upstage even Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

Leibowitz wore a shirt that had a deadly serious message written on it: “In need of a kidney. O positive,” with his phone number at the bottom. “I thought, 'If I can get one person to notice this shirt that could be a potential match, it's worth the $30 investment,’” he remembered.

After all, reasoned Leibowitz, “Where am I gonna hit more people than I am in a week in Disney? So I came up with the idea with the shirt and then I asked my daughter Shannon to help me design this.”

As the family strolled around the park, “some people started looking and taking notice. And then they started taking pictures.”

One visitor in particular proved to be a social media guardian angel of sorts: She took a picture and shared it on Facebook. And it went viral.

Leibowitz got tons of calls, many of them “flakes” he said, putting him on "an emotional roller coaster.”

But he responded to every single one, if for no other reason than to tell people that he appreciated their efforts.

And then, Leibowitz got a call from an Indiana man named Richie Sully who had an offer he couldn’t refuse: He was O-positive and had an extra kidney. And Leibowitz could have it, if all the tests came out clear. “He was Mr. Optimism right from the beginning. I was laughing to myself. And he was also very proactive,” said Leibowitz.

Within in a day, he sent Leibowitz a text showing him a picture of his application.

"So he filled out the application, did the blood test, and then he said, 'I’m ready to come to New York.' We met for the first time. Gave each other a big hug."

They toured the city together and bonded. “We kinda look alike a little bit, but he’s just a very humble guy, just doing an amazing gesture. And I love the guy, I appreciate the guy, my kids appreciate the guy.”

While the surgery is over, Leibowitz's recovery “is a process," he said.

"I’m alive and I have so many years with my family — I ain’t complaining.” That’s been his attitude all along. To look for the positive. To never give up hope.

Leibowitz isn’t one to wax poetic, but some things defy mere words, specifically when it comes to his donor.

“Every time I see Richie, I say, ‘Did I say thank you?’ He knows how I feel. He knows how my kids feel. They’ve posted the most amazing love letters to him. I’ll try to thank him for the rest of my life. I can’t put it into words,” Leibowitz said.

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