A Valentine's Day gift to grow old with
Most people get hearts for Valentine’s Day.
Jeanne Ficociello got a kidney.
Ficociello, VMD, MS, DACVIM, and a specialist in internal medicine at AAHA-accredited VCA South Shore Animal Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts, was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease (PKD)—a genetic condition that cause cysts to grow on and damage the kidneys—while being treated for a lacrosse injury when she was in college.
Ficociello says her first thought upon hearing the news was, “I’ll never play lacrosse again.” At the time, she was devastated, but she laughs about it now. “I was 18,” she says. “I thought lacrosse was going to be some sort of career channel for me.”
Instead, Ficociello, now 40, rechanneled her energy into earning an undergraduate degree in biology, then going on to earn her VMD at the University of Pennsylvania.
The PKD wasn’t that bad, in the beginning.
Ficociello says PKD can take different paths in different people. “Some people aren’t that affected by it,” she says. “Some people go into renal failure. I figured that at some point, I’d be headed in that direction.”
Things were stable until 2004, when she tested positive for hypertension, a leading cause of kidney failure. She was still in veterinary school and still playing lacrosse.
She kept studying. She stopped playing lacrosse.
In 2011, her kidney function started to drop.
To be eligible for a kidney transplant, kidney function must be at 20% or less. Today, Ficociello is at 17%.
In one respect, Ficociello considered herself fortunate. “I have very little function left, but I've never needed dialysis,” she says. “I’ve been very lucky.”
Ficociello went on the organ donor list a year and a half ago. The wait for a kidney varies by region. In Massachusetts, it’s four years, assuming you’re a good candidate for a transplant. Ficociello’s doctors thought she was. To speed up the process, they encouraged her to try to find a living kidney donor.
Organs that come up on transplant donor lists of necessity come from deceased people. And kidneys on that list are called dead kidneys, for obvious reasons.
A “live kidney” must, by definition, come from a living donor. And there’s no transplant list for live kidneys—if you want one, you need to go out and find a donor. Or the donor needs to find you.
So, in 2015, Ficociello put the word out on social media that she was looking for a kidney. She posted on Facebook. A coworker started a GoFundMe page for her.
The agonizing wait began.
Ficociello came close to finding a match three times, but after initial blood workups, none of them worked out. Then, her doctors called to tell her that a new potential donor had popped up, and it looked promising. Plus, the person lived in the area.
“[The doctors] said, ‘There’s someone who’s close, they’re 98% through the process, we think this is going to be a go. But she doesn’t want to tell you until it's definitive, because she knows you’ve been there before and some people have fallen through,’’ Ficociello says. “I had no idea it was someone I work with every day.”
Ficociello found out on Valentine’s Day. “I was between appointments, doing paperwork, and she came back with one of our coworkers and I noticed they were filming. And she handed me this valentine.”
The valentine read: “Roses are red, violets are blue, would you like a kidney? Because I have two! The test results are in: We’re wonderfully matched. So accept this Valentine’s Day gift, no strings attached.”
“When I opened it, I didn’t even read the whole thing,” Ficociello says, “but I saw ‘kidney,’ and I looked at her, and I said, ‘Are you the person?’ And she said yes, and I started crying. I was just totally overwhelmed; it was amazing.”
The donor was Katlyne Velasquez, 27, a certified veterinary technician at VCA South Shore.
It’s a big hospital with a large staff, but it was no secret at South Shore that Ficociello was looking for a donor. “I knew that she had been looking for a while,” Velasquez says. “I spent some time and I thought about it and I just thought it would be a great gesture. Compassion is needed in everybody’s life.”
Velasquez says she never really questioned her decision to donate a kidney, but she did run the idea by a few people to see what they thought. “I [was] curious to see if anybody would freak out,” she says. “But everybody thought it was such a great thing. Nobody tried to talk me out of it.”
The transplant will take place within the next six months. Velasquez expects to be in the hospital four or five days for the operation itself, and she’ll be at home recovering for another four to six weeks after that. The money raised by Ficociello’s GoFundMe account should cover her costs, both pre- and post-op. “It’s a little tricky,” she says. “You can’t take money for giving somebody a kidney.”
Velasquez says she hasn’t had much time to think about the enormity of what she’s committed to. “It’s all still pretty new. [Ficociello is] wonderful, and the fact that she’s such a great person is just icing on the cake.”
But in the end, it wasn’t much of decision for Velasquez. More of a no-brainer, really. “I think compassion is the purpose of what we’re all doing here,” she says.
It’s a mindset familiar to the staff at VCA South Shore.
“We’re very, very lucky,” Ficociello says. “Part of why we provide such excellent care at this hospital is that we care about each other. That just inherently lends itself to providing excellent care to patients.”
Photo credit: (c) Katlyne Velasquez