Just a few years ago, Anne Gianchetta’s increasing paleness, weakness, constant fatigue and diminishing weight on her petite 5-foot frame, caused her sons, Michael Jr. and Mark, to urge her to finally get a kidney transplant.
At the time, all the Noyac grandmother of four could think about was her family. Ms. Gianchetta had been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease—a disorder in which clusters of cysts develop primarily in the kidneys and that can lead to kidney failure—several years prior. She had been undergoing dialysis six hours a day, three days a week.
But her worsening condition was at a tipping point.
“My sons every day would get more and more upset seeing me,” Ms. Gianchetta, now 72 (her birthday was earlier this month, which, incidentally, is National Donate Life Month) with a healthy, donated kidney, recalled during an interview on Tuesday morning in her Rogers Court home. “They kept saying, ‘Mom, this is crazy. Let’s get this done.’”
“All I thought about was my grandchildren,” she said, alternately touching her silver necklace and folding her hands over her slacks, as she sat at one end of a floral couch in her open-floor-plan house.
Propped on a rocking chair across the room was a pillow sewn with the words, “GOD COULDN’T BE EVERYWHERE, SO HE CREATED GRANDMOTHERS.” Suddenly, her voice cracked and her eyes welled up with tears. She looked off into the distance.
“I want to see them graduate college, and it just upset me that I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able,’” she said.
Family looms large in Ms. Gianchetta’s life. Nearly everyone on her little cul-de-sac is a relative, by blood or marriage. She cherishes the quality time she can now spend with her grandchildren, Jonathon, 17, Tyler, 16, Derek, 13, and Megan, 10—time granted to her by her new kidney. She calls her niece, Denise Burke O’Brien, her “little princess” and “the daughter I never had” and further jokes about having “da’niece” and “da’nephew.” She proudly points out that she is related to local Judge Edward Burke and “attorney to the stars” Edward Burke Jr. She and her husband, Michael Sr., together own a Brentwood environmental firm, Gianco, which does recycling and remediation after fires, flood and mold.
Ms. Gianchetta’s diagnosis came 14 years ago, when she was about 58. She was monitored closely by a nephrologist, but eventually her creatinine levels got so high she needed a transplant. Her husband spent hours on end researching the best hospitals.
Finding a donor was another matter. Several factors, such as blood and tissue types, must be taken into account to determine whether a living donor will be a good match. If a compatible living donor is not available, one’s name can be added to a waiting list for a deceased-donor kidney. The demand is always greater than the supply, however, so the list is always growing, and the wait can be several years.
Nearly 10,000 people in New York State are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants, according to Southampton Hospital and the New York Organ Donor Network. About 20 percent of people 18 and over have signed up to be organ donors, less than the average of 45-percent across the nation.
Ms. Gianchetta’s husband and two sons didn’t meet the criteria for a match. Neither did a cousin in Mississippi. Ms. Burke O’Brien was considered a perfect match—until she wasn’t. A cyst found on her kidney at the last minute made it too risky, Ms. Gianchetta explained.
Meanwhile, she was already registered for a cadaver kidney, but at her age, the waiting list was estimated to be about 10 years. At that rate, she would be 80, and when it comes to viable organs, the odds favor the young. She signed up to receive organs in three states, New York, Pennsylvania and Florida—the Sunshine State is recommended because it has a lot of motorcycle crashes and no helmet laws, Ms. Gianchetta said. Her husband immediately signed up for “mercy” flights from East Hampton Airport, free flights available to potential organ recipients who may need to fly somewhere at the drop of a hat when the call of an available organ comes. Cadaver organs live for only a short time.
She soon began dialysis at the Southampton Hospital Regional Dialysis Center at the Hampton Bays Medical Atrium in Hampton Bays.
“I don’t want to frighten anyone. Dialysis saved my life until I got my kidney, I’m not going to dispute that,” she said. “But it’s nothing that you would say, ‘I’m going go give you the gift of dialysis.’ That’s what they call it, the ‘gift of dialysis.’” She spoke highly of the people there, especially her technician, Keri Dennis, who, she said, wrote in a letter, “I may have been your caregiver, but you were my lifesaver.” Dialysis is time consuming and uncomfortable, Ms. Gianchetta said.
“You really don’t have any quality of life when you’re on dialysis, because you’re tired,” she said. “They drain every drop of blood out of you, wash it and put it back in. It’s very tedious.”
After years of regular appointments of getting poked with needles and having her blood cleaned by the dialysis machines, a live donor appeared in the form of her secretary of 13 years, Kimberly Browne.
One day, Ms. Browne spoke up and said she wished to donate a kidney. Ms. Gianchetta had taken over where Ms. Browne’s mother had left off when she died, and Ms. Browne wanted to return the favor.
She turned out to be a perfect match. A transplant was set for July 6, 2011. But Ms. Browne developed an infection in her ovaries and needed a hysterectomy, Ms. Gianchetta said. A second date was set, but Ms. Browne got into a bad car crash, flipping her SUV on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was a miracle, Ms. Gianchetta said, that she survived. They joked about how Ms. Browne did not have a letter on her at the time of the crash saying that, in the event of emergency, Ms. Gianchetta was to get one of her kidneys.
The transplant eventually took place on August 18, 2011, at New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. Dr. Sandip Kapur, chief of transplant surgery, did the deed.
“To this day, every month when I go into the city, he says, ‘Do you know you can do anything now. You have a 40-year-old kidney,” Ms. Gianchetta said, with a laugh. “And I say, ‘Yes, but you keep forgetting. You put it in a 70-year-old body.”
Nevertheless, today, post-transplant, Ms. Gianchetta is no longer asleep at 6 p.m. Instead she is watching her oldest grandson play hockey or going American Girl doll shopping with her granddaughter.
“I didn’t know how sick I was until I got better,” she said. “I was like half a person for a long time.”
Today, she urges others to sign up to donate.
“So many lives can be saved with one person’s body,” she said. “Give someone else that chance to live.”
One may register as an organ donor at one’s local Department of Motor Vehicles or at www.donatelifeny.org.