Germany's main opposition leader, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, announced today that he is taking a break from politics so that he can donate a kidney to his sick wife.
Steinmeier's wife, 48-year old Elke Büdenbender, has been told by doctors that only an organ donor can save her life. Büdenbender has suffered for years from a kidney disorder that worsened significantly earlier this year and became life-threatening in the past few days.
As the waiting period in Germany for patients needing a kidney is on average six years, doctors resorted to testing Steinmeier, parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, for his suitability as a donor.
As soon as it was shown he would be a suitable match, Steinmeier, 54, agreed to undergo the operation.
"In the last few weeks, as her condition became acute, we began looking for other therapies to find there were none," he told reporters at a press conference in Berlin today. Doctors then suggested the donor option.
"I will be the organ donor," he said. "You will, I'm sure, understand that for this reason I won't be active on the political stage for the next few weeks," he added. Journalists present were visibly moved by his announcement.
Steinmeier, German foreign minister between 2005 and 2009 and deputy to Chancellor Angela Merkel during her first-term coalition government, before becoming her main challenger in last year's general election, was due to be admitted to hospital today.
The transplant is expected to take place later this week. Steinmeier will be away from work until October to enable him to recover. His post will be temporarily filled by the SPD's deputy parliamentary leader, Joachim Poss.
"I'm expecting that you will see me again, when I return as my old normal self," he quipped, adding: "I promise you'll be hearing from me as soon as there's any news."
Steinmeier and Büdenbender met when they were law students and have been a couple for 20 years. They have been married since 1995, and have a 14-year old daughter.
During last year's election campaign she emerged from the privacy she has always fiercely guarded to support her husband's campaign for the chancellorship. In a rare glimpse into their private life she said that although the couple got on well, they could not stand sharing the task of cooking a meal together.
During the campaign she said that her main regret in supporting her husband's campaign was that since then she had been unable to take public transport without being recognised.
Steinmeier is considered one of the most approachable and friendly of German politicians. His decision to help his wife won him a host of accolades from the worlds of media and politics today, as well as encouraging remarks from a moved German public. Merkel was among those to send her political rival and his wife "good luck and best wishes for a speedy recovery", her spokesman said.
Steinmeier's decision to put politics to one side to aid his wife's recovery recalls the decision by former leading SPD member Franz Münterfering to withdraw from politics completely in 2007 to enable him to nurse his terminally-ill wife, Anekpetra. She died the following year. He returned to politics several months later.