Jeff Mazza: A New Kidney, A New Life

Jeff Mazza’s failing kidney function was killing him. Literally.

A kidney donated by his 41-year-old son, John, saved his life.

“Dianna and I still struggle getting our minds around the generosity of John to give one of his kidneys,” Jeff said. “It’s amazing that I had given him life and how he was so willing to give it to me.”

Jeff, 68, a Chapel Hill dentist for 35 years, is now retired and lives with his wife Dianna, 60, a retired dental hygienist, at Cedar Point in Carteret County. Jeff’s kidney failure, first diagnosed in 2005, coupled with a series of fires that destroyed their home in 2010, tested everything they had.

“Before we got ill, we knew there was a lot of humanity out there, but it’s unbelievable what people did for us,” Jeff said. “Dianna organized a community of more than 50 people, both in Chapel Hill and at the coast, who agreed to serve as caregivers to help with whatever we needed. Members of our kidney transplant team were the volunteers who provided dinner at SECU Family House one night. Just an amazing experience.”

Dianna and I still struggle getting our minds around the generosity of John to give one of his kidneys.

Jeff was no stranger to health issues: Triple-bypass heart surgery in 2000, kidney cancer surgery in 2011, decades-long issues with gout, a history of high blood pressure. But a misdiagnosis of Parkinson’s Disease and the medications he was given for it pushed his already weakened kidneys into failure.

Referencing the marriage vows they exchanged in March, 1990, Jeff told Dianna, “You should have asked the preacher ‘how much poorer,’ ‘how much sicker?’”.

Committed, steadfast caregivers, Dianna and Jeff are there for each other. Always.

Jeff’s kidney function declined much faster than expected, and he was down to 5 percent filtration at his October referral to UNC Hospitals to be evaluated for possible kidney transplant.

“For most renal failure patients with those numbers they are on dialysis,” Jeff said. “But Dr. Ed Fuller, assistant professor of medicine at the UNC Kidney Center, kept me off dialysis with medications and his incredible care, so that I was healthy enough for a kidney transplant.”

“He is too kind to me and over-represents the part I played in his care,” Dr. Fuller, said, humbly. “I steered him through the medical evaluation process to the point he was medically ready and cleared for transplant. From there it was the surgery team, the transplant nurse coordinators, the social workers, the financial counselors.”

But it’s not so much a handing off of responsibility, but of all working together, Dr. Fuller said.

“We make sure our patients are in the best health by every measure so that they are positioned to do well and focus on healing,” he said.

“It really is a community that forms around our multidisciplinary effort.”

Being cleared for transplant is one hurdle. Finding a donor, preferably a living donor, is another. Fortunately, Jeff had two healthy, living donors that matched his need: Dianna and John.

“I was cleared and ready to give Jeff a kidney,” Dianna recalled. “John’s girlfriend, Fawn, was unconditionally supportive and a wonderful caregiver throughout the entire process. With teary eyes, I told John and Fawn that I didn’t know how I was going to be the donor and the caregiver. Fawn lovingly said, ‘Now you don’t have to.’ They gave me such relief and a tremendous gift.”

“I can’t stress enough the value of a living donor,” Dr. Fuller said. “Healthy individuals can live full lives with one kidney, and donating a kidney is really donating life. The donated kidney tends to work better right away and over time. There’s immediate benefit. How wonderful a gift is that?”

In early December, 2013, John and Fawn arrived from Colorado, to prepare for giving Jeff the gift of life. On Dec. 6, he underwent a two-hour procedure to remove his healthy right kidney. Only after it was removed, examined and declared transplantable was Jeff prepped for surgery.

Seven hours later, Jeff was in recovery, the donated kidney in place. Some not unexpected issues with unstable blood pressure kept him in UNC Hospitals until Dec. 15, when he and Dianna were released to SECU Family House, the 40-bed hospitality house for critically ill patients and their families less than two miles from the hospital.

“We stayed at Family House while being evaluated for the transplant,” Jeff said. “Right away, even as sick at I was, we could see and feel the value of the community that forms there. When your own situation is dire, you meet others who have it so much worse. There is a camaraderie that forms unlike any other.

“My heart did go out to a woman I saw across that wonderful community kitchen our first night there.”

“My heart did go out to a woman I saw across that wonderful community kitchen our first night there,” Jeff recalled. “She was a former dental patient of mine, and I said to myself, ‘please don’t let her be seriously ill’. Imagine my surprise and delight to learn that she, Janice McAdams, is the executive director. I knew we were in good hands.”

While the Mazzas still have incredibly generous friends in Orange County where they can stay for extended periods, it was helpful to be closer to the hospital in those early days post-transplant, when blood pressure issues and unexpected bleeding sent Jeff back to UNC Hospitals. Family House filled the need.

But despite those initial set-backs, the ongoing weekly blood draws and precise daily measures of how much water he takes in—and more importantly, how much he puts out — Jeff is focused on the future.

It’s about taking the daily walks — a little farther every day — with Dianna and their two elderly rescued Italian greyhounds, Valentino and Darling Isabella, in the national forest close to their home.

It’s about preparing meals with Dianna and watching pods of dolphins coming up for air as they swim the Intracoastal Waterway. It’s the sunsets over that same water while sitting down to dinners that often feature recipes from Jeff’s Italian-American father.

As the weather warms, it’s getting the boat back in the water and setting the crab pots. And the May 16-18 field trip with the N.C. Native Plant Society to the Green Swamp that straddles Columbus and Brunswick counties.

“That was our first real outing after chasing a kidney for two years,” Jeff said. “It was wonderful.”

Both Dianna and Jeff look forward to volunteering again with the N.C. Coastal Federation, which participates in events such as the annual N.C. Seafood Festival in Morehead City and projects like filling mesh bags with oyster shells to support the growth and development of more oysters. Members of the Coastal Federation for many years, Dianna and Jeff want to preserve the pristine coast for their enjoyment and for future generations.

“Because of my new kidney,” Jeff said, “we will be able to give back to the coastal environment that we love.”

“It was no secret how poorly and how limited Jeff felt before the kidney transplant,” said Dr. Fuller. “While he traded chronic kidney disease for a number of transplant medications multiple times a day, he’s getting his life back. It’s a fantastic thing for the whole transplant team to see a patient thrive and improve as a result of all our care and efforts.”

“You marry for life and not for lunch,” Dianna said, when quizzed about caregiving. It’s as I told Jeff’s transplant surgeon: “You have the skills in your hands, the knowledge in your head, but treat with your heart.”

“Isn’t that how we all want to be cared for?”