Lisa Ruzzi has fond memories of her childhood in New York, especially spending time with her dad.
“He was always a jokester,” she says, “always making me laugh.”
But when she talked with her father, Barry Ruzzi, in December 2020, he seemed blue and shared that he was having serious health issues and weakness that began after an episode where he unintentionally inhaled fiberglass dust, which started a chain reaction that aggravated his existing diabetes and led to kidney failure.
“For me, it started out that I was losing upper-body strength,” he says.
Barry’s health issues “escalated to the point where I didn’t want to do anything. They started testing, and [my kidney function] was down to 8 or 9 percent,” he says. “My doc said we are looking at dialysis”—an hourslong process several days a week to clean the blood when the kidneys aren’t functioning.
“It was the first time I heard him sound down,” Lisa says of her father, who was then 70. “He was always happy-go-lucky.”
Donating a Kidney to Dad
Lisa quickly decided she would donate one of her kidneys to her father to help him avoid dialysis and further illness. He had worked multiple jobs to support their family when she was a child, including part time as a DJ for weddings and events. Now retired, he has a vibrant, active social life. He’s the kind of guy who can’t walk down the street without running into someone he knows, she says.
“I could not picture him hanging out in a dialysis chair,” says Lisa, a compliance manager for an insurance startup. “I didn’t hesitate.”
Barry was, of course, immensely grateful to his daughter. He asked if she was sure, but “her mind was made up. I didn’t have to ask.” Of her generosity and sacrifice, he says, “I don’t even have words for it sometimes.”
A Long-Distance Donation
Once her dad accepted her offer, Lisa, then 41, reached out to her primary care doctor to get the ball rolling. Encouraged by the conversation with her doctor, she connected with the donor coordinator at the hospital in Hackensack, New Jersey, where her father would go for the transplant surgery. She learned that to be a donor, she would need to complete every step of the process, from the initial tests to the surgery itself, in one place, either in Hackensack or locally in North Carolina.
It typically takes months for kidney donors to have their necessary medical and psychological screenings. Lisa chose to work with the organ donation team at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill, just 15 minutes from her home—and a place where transplants have been performed for more than 50 years. By staying close to home, she would benefit from the support of her husband, keep her stress levels down and reduce the risks associated with travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When a living donor and recipient are in different locations, the transplant is referred to as a “remote” donation. It’s not common, and according to Lisa, this was the first time the hospital in Hackensack had participated in this process with a living donor.
The medical team at UNC Health coordinated with the team in New Jersey to synchronize the surgeries and the organ’s journey from Chapel Hill to Hackensack.
“Living kidney donation gives the chance to shorten the wait time for someone to receive a kidney, gives a better-quality organ that normally lasts longer, and also helps the people that are waiting for a kidney to move ahead on the list,” says UNC Health transplant surgeon Pablo Serrano, MD. “The more living kidney [donations] we can do, the better it is for the whole community. Remote donation is just one way to make donation easier, breaking down barriers for donation and helping patients stay off dialysis.”
The Organ Transplant Process
Barry’s transplant process officially began in March 2021. The next month, Lisa started her own regimen of blood tests and cancer screenings.
She named her soon-to-be-removed kidney “Gertie” and focused on her wellness routine, which included eating healthfully, limiting alcohol consumption, and doing strength training and cardiovascular exercises.
“Knowing I would be donating motivated me,” she says. “I need to be on top of my game, so I’m giving them the best of the best when it’s time.”
The medical team at UNC Health, including Dr. Serrano, also encouraged Lisa to think about her health after the surgery, and that living with one kidney requires a commitment to her health for the long haul. That meant making regular wellness appointments with her physician and maintaining her healthy eating and exercise habits.
“The main thing is to let her physicians know that she only has one kidney since a lot of the things that affect kidney function are medications and diagnostic studies performed by physicians,” Dr. Serrano says. “The second thing is preventable diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. Eating well, exercising and maintaining a healthy weight are the best way to avoid these problems.”
Transplant Day Arrives
The surgeries took place in June 2021, a few days before Father’s Day. Barry’s kidneys held on long enough that he never had to start dialysis. “I didn’t send a card, I sent a kidney,” says Lisa, laughing. The father-daughter pair texted the night before and wished each other good luck. “I told him, ‘Gert’s coming!’” she says.
On the day of the surgery, Lisa was anxious but ready. “I was just excited that the day was finally here, and we don’t have to wait anymore. … I’d never had surgery before, but all I could think about was my dad is getting his kidney today, and he is going to feel normal again.”
When Barry recalls the transplant surgery, he says, “It was amazing. They rolled me into the room, and the doc said, ‘We’ve got mail—a UPS box. It’s probably for you.’” Barry laughs, “They had already started the IV. I counted down … 5, 4, 3 … and that’s it. I woke up the next day with a new kidney.” (If you’re wondering, organs are shipped by a medical courier service that may include car and flight transportation.)
Recovering as a Team
Both surgeries went well, with no complications and smooth recoveries for both father and daughter. “In the recovery room, that nurse was amazing. It felt like home,” Lisa says. “It was a wonderful experience at UNC, for sure.”
Lisa and her dad talked frequently, sharing how they were feeling, and tips and tricks for feeling better. He was focused on following doctor’s orders to drink a lot of water to stay hydrated. According to Lisa, the “most brutal” part of her recovery was the bloating and gassiness from the surgery. Surgeons need to pump air into the abdomen to access and safely remove the kidney.
Two days after the procedure, Lisa was discharged from UNC Hospitals to continue her recovery from home. “Holding myself up straight was a challenge,” she says, as well as figuring out how to lie down comfortably to sleep. But going forward, “every day I felt just a little bit better,” she says. She had her first follow-up appointment two weeks after the surgery and was doing great. After about eight weeks, she returned to the cardio and weightlifting exercises she was doing before the surgery.
Barry continued to improve, with regular check-ins with his transplant team as he healed. He started taking about 20 medications, including anti-rejection drugs so his body wouldn’t try to attack the new organ. Now, he’s down to about half that number of drugs, and he says it’s wonderful to get his strength back.
Reflecting on the experience months later, Lisa says she would encourage others to consider a living kidney donation, and other hospitals to consider remote donation for future transplants. Barry wishes he had another kidney so he could donate to someone else.
“It’s amazing,” he says. “It’s life! It’s another shot at life. My daughter, she saved my life.”
As for Lisa, “I don’t feel like a hero,” she says. “I just want to kick back with my pops when I’m back in New York.”
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