Tom McDonald’s health problems were serious, but the text message he sent to his friend was not meant that way.
McDonald was joking when he messaged his buddy to say, “Hey Chris, if you’re not doing anything with a kidney, can I borrow one? Haha.”
McDonald had just received some tough news.
Both of his failing kidneys had deteriorated to the point where he needed a new one, and he was being added to the long list of people from the region seeking a donation.
McDonald often felt lousy and was getting worse, and the odds were the 52-year-old Lower Heidelberg Township man would need to wait three to five years to receive a kidney from a deceased donor while enduring many grueling sessions of dialysis.
After McDonald hit send on his lighthearted text, he immediately got a response he wasn’t expecting.
“What’s your blood type?” asked Chris Cortazzo, 54, of Spring Township.
“A-positive,” McDonald answered.
“So am I,” Cortazzo said. “Let’s do it.”
McDonald called to see if Cortazzo was serious, and found out he was.
“I was stunned,” McDonald said of the gift his friend was offering him.
“He was the first person and the last person I asked for a kidney. It was extraordinary.”
Cortazzo knew how critical it was that McDonald receive a transplant, which made his decision easy.
“I never gave it a second thought,” he said.
The two retired police officers reached that agreement in 2018 and began their journey as “kidney brothers,” which has brought them even closer together.
There are close to 100,000 people across the U.S. waiting for a kidney to become available for transplant, including about 6,000 in Pennsylvania, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing.
But McDonald, who retired as a New York City detective in 2001, knew that if everything went well he wouldn’t be on that list as long as most others.
There were a lot of tests and exams for both men to go through to make sure the transplant would be successful, and as time dragged on Cortazzo was especially ready for their surgeries to come.
“He was a friend in need, and I wanted to help,” Cortazzo said.
On the morning of Nov. 10 he finally got that opportunity at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where Cortazzo’s left kidney was removed laparoscopically by one surgical team and placed into McDonald by another team in separate operating rooms.
Each surgery took a few hours, and both were successful. By the time McDonald woke up the next morning his new kidney was already working well in filtering his blood and producing urine.
The new kidney had McDonald feeling better almost immediately, he said, and Cortazzo too felt fine, other than the soreness both men felt from their incisions.
The two had taken a limo ride to the hospital together just two days earlier, but their reunion in McDonald’s hospital room Nov. 12 after he was first brought up from the ICU was an emotional one.
Doctors had told McDonald how fortunate he was to avoid both the long wait for a transplant and dialysis, and he appreciated the sacrifice his friend had made.
“We hugged, and I told him ‘Thank you, brother,’ and that I loved him,” McDonald said. “This is life-changing for me, and I count my blessings every day. I may never hit the lottery, but I feel like I already hit the lottery. Just having Chris for a friend is a home run for me.”
Cortazzo said he hadn’t considered donating his kidney to be that big a deal, as he was confident he’d make a quick and full recovery. He also knew that if he ever needed to have his remaining kidney replaced, he would go to the top of the transplant list as a live donor.
But when he saw McDonald get choked up for the first time in that hospital room, it made him feel good about what he’d done.
“It was an awesome moment,” Cortazzo said. “Tom doesn’t get teared up, but he did that day. And that was the first time we ever hugged. We have a bond now like never before. That’s what brotherhood is.”
Cortazzo, who was a Reading police officer for 16 years until he retired in 2016, is thankful he had the chance to help him.
“I feel like I finally did something useful in my life,” he said. “And I’m ecstatic for Tom and his family that he’s going to lead a much longer, healthier life.”
‘Donors are heroes’
Dr. Peter Abt, the Penn Health transplant surgeon who put the kidney into McDonald, agrees about how meaningful the surgery was and how well it went.
“A kidney transplant really revolutionizes someone’s life,” Abt said.
That’s even more true when it comes from a live donor, he said. The recovery time is quicker, and the organ usually lasts much longer, he said. The half-life of a transplanted kidney from a live donor is 19 years, meaning half of the kidneys will survive longer than that, he said.
“There is a very good chance of him (McDonald) leaving this world with that kidney still functioning,” he said.
Only about one-third of the kidney transplants the hospital does are from live donors, and Abt praised Cortazzo for helping to add McDonald to that group.
“Donors are heroes,” he said. “They have a remarkable ability to immediately transform someone’s life.”
Celebration of new life
McDonald loves feeling that transformation every day, he said.
“I always used to feel so tired and drained, but my energy is up tenfold,” he said, mentioning that afternoon naps are no longer the daily necessity they’d become.
McDonald said one of the only negative side effects of the transplant has been insomnia, which he attributes to some of the medication he’ll need to take for a while.
Cortazzo has another theory, though, saying McDonald’s restlessness is much like his own and a result of having a part of Cortazzo in him, he laughed.
There is a chance McDonald’s body could still reject the kidney, and he’ll need to take anti-rejection medications the rest of his life. But the six-month mark will be a big one, as once a transplanted organ survives that long, the chances it will be rejected drop heavily.
McDonald said that’s good news for him, his wife Mary, their daughters Brittney, 26, and Kailey, 21, and their son Jimmy, 24.
When he thinks of what a long shot it was that not only would his friend be willing to give him his kidney but that they would share the same blood type, he considers it a miracle.
“I feel like God’s looking out for me,” he said.
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