The greatest gift: Brothers celebrate 30-year anniversary of life-saving donation
Teenagers aren't known for their selflessness. With so much going on in their lives, it can sometimes be difficult for them to look beyond themselves to recognize the needs of others.
Jim Merola wasn't like that. When the 16-year-old learned that his older brother Al needed a kidney transplant to live, Jim -- without hesitation -- offered up one of his own. "I just thought, at the time, if I could lead a normal life with one kidney, I didn't see any harm in giving up one to save his life," said Jim, now 48 and living in West Haven.
Unfortunately, Jim was too young to give up an organ, and had to wait until he was 18. But, as soon as he was old enough, Jim made one of the most important decisions of his and Al's life. He gave up the kidney. Saturday marked the 30th anniversary of Jim's gift to his brother. The brothers, Shelton natives, underwent their surgeries in Yale-New Haven Hospital.
Both Jim and Al, now 57 and living in Milford, are in fairly good health -- thanks in large part to their respective wives, Michele and Janie. "(Janie) keeps me in line and makes sure I don't destroy my brother's gift," Al said.
The anniversary is of the utmost importance to everyone in the family. For Al, that day marked the start of a life far more normal and comfortable than the one he had for the previous 27 years. Al said his kidney problems started in his early teens. When he was 17 years old, he was told he would eventually need a transplant. Al wasn't sure when that day would come and, indeed, it was nearly 10 years before his health problems fully caught up with him. Then, in 1978 -- three weeks before his wedding -- Al's doctor referred him to a nephrologist. Al and Janie were told that the kidney transplant needed to happen as soon as possible.
When Jim stepped up, it seemed like a solution was in sight. But the hospital insisted that the transplant be delayed until Jim was no longer a minor. Janie said she was deeply worried for her husband, and even offered to be tested to see if she was a match for Al.
"My mother had his blood type," Janie Merola explained. "I didn't want him to wait. But they wouldn't test me."
Instead, for the next year and a half, Al was on dialysis -- first at clinics in West Hartford and Bridgeport, and then at home, once he and Janie received proper training. The home dialysis treatments went on about a year and took place for seven hours a day, three days a week.
The couple encountered a variety of challenges, including malfunctions in their hemodialysis machine. It was a struggle. But then, the day Jim Merola had been waiting for finally came. He turned 18 and became old enough to help his brother. But even once he became of age, Jim still had to go through a battery of tests before he could go through with the donation. In fact, he spent the better part of the spring vacation of his senior year of high school "being poked and prodded" in the hospital in preparation for the surgery.
Finally, on July 31, 1980, Jim's kidney was removed and given to Al. The procedure for a kidney transplant was vastly different 30 years ago, said Dr. Sanjay Kulkarni, the current director of kidney transplant, pancreas transplant and dialysis access services at the Yale-New Haven Transplantation Center. Now, Kulkarni said, the surgery is all done laparoscopically, using a few small incision. At the time of the transaction between the Merola brothers, the process was far more invasive, with a longer recovery time.
Then, those involved in a kidney transplant stayed in the hospital for 5 to 7 days following the procedure. Today, patients often go home within a day and a half of surgery. Kulkarni also said the anti-rejection drugs used at that time weren't as effective as those available today. "There have been many, many advances," he said.
Despite having the surgery at a less medically advanced time, the Merola brothers came through the procedure well, and have enjoyed good health ever since. Jim has never had any side effects from the donation, and appeared hale and hearty during an interview at his home Thursday evening. Al, meanwhile, has had a strong, healthy life with his brother's kidney. "I told (Jim) I got the better one," he joked.
In the years since the transplant, Janie and Al Merola have been advocates for organ donation and transplantation. Janie said people can be afraid to donate organs, even when they might save a life. Those include a man the Merolas met at the hospital all those years ago, whose brother was a match, but afraid to donate his kidney. "I don't know what happened to that man," Janie said.
Though her brother-in-law is a fairly modest person, Janie Merola said she's made it her duty to let him know how much she still appreciates his sacrifice. "He's quiet about these things," she said. "He doesn't brag about it at all. I do it for him."