“I guess I felt that I had to turn something good out of something bad,” Patti answered.
Patti was my mom’s best friend. Throughout my teenage years, I remember her and her husband spending time with my parents. I always thought of her as my mom’s best friend who looked like my mom (but brunette), and who acted like my mom (both outgoing, kind, hard working moms). Though, unlike my mother who was raising 3 teenage daughters, Patti was raising two teenage sons.
During my junior year at college, my mom phoned me. She called to tell me that Bobby, Patti’s eldest son, was flying back home to Pittsburgh from Kansas where he had recently moved for a job after graduating from WVU as a petroleum engineer. His doctor recently diagnosed him with aplastic anemia. Aplastic anemia strikes 4 in one million people, is not contagious nor inherited. It’s a rare blood disorder that stops the bone marrow from working. Bobby only discovered it because he had cut himself shaving and couldn’t stop the bleeding and was black and blue all over. The doctor explained he was very sick, to get home immediately and start intensive treatment. He was placed on a national bone marrow transplant list. The family had hoped that Bobby’s younger brother, Mark, might be a bone marrow match (1 in 4 chance with family members). Unfortunately, they tested him and learned he was not a match.
After 4 weeks in the hospital Bobby contracted an infection. Tragically, he died only 7 weeks from the day he was diagnosed in Kansas. He passed at the young age of 23.
Long before Bobby was ever sick, Patti had always donated blood and platelets. After she lost Bobby due to their inability to find a donor match fast enough, she recommitted herself to becoming a donor.
Patti had been on a bone marrow donor list for a while, but was never identified as a match. A few years after Bobby’s death, Patti read about the first altruistic kidney donation procedure in a local newspaper done at UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). She knew she wanted to do it. In 2003, she bravely became only the second person in the history of UPMC to donate a kidney to a stranger. Saving the recipient’s life with whom she later met and continues a strong bond and friendship.
Patti explained to me that after surgery, some referred to her as a “hero.” She said she hates that reference and has never been comfortable with it because she isn’t a hero. She was doing something she felt she was supposed to be doing – a calling of some kind. She knew Bobby would watch over her and keep her safe during the procedure. According to the US Department of Health’s Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, as September 19, 2014, there are 101,415 candidates on a waiting list for a kidney. As of January 2014 only 7,020 recovered donors – 4,213 from deceased donors and 2,807 from living donors. The living donors tend to be known family members. At the time Patti became a living donor to a stranger, there were only 75 other altruistic donors on record.
UPMC approached her 6 weeks after the donation to share her story at National Donor’s Day attended by organ recipients and medical personnel at the hospital. The recipients all lit candles in memory of their deceased donors. Since she was the only living donor in the area, they asked her to speak. Not being a public speaker, she practiced her speech repeatedly with her son, Mark, and a few of Bobby’s close friends.
Tearfully and with a smile she said, “I guess I was picked to speak because no other donors were alive to speak. All other kidney donors were deceased when they donated their kidneys. My husband was in complete support of me giving my kidney away… though he didn’t realize I wanted to do it while I was still living.” They all laughed hard when she shared her husband’s reaction to it.
Early this summer, I had lunch with Patti, and though I’m a bit behind in writing it, it’s a story that has always stayed with me.
Patti proudly spoke of Bobby and what her town has done for him since his passing. An all-star baseball tournament held every year in Bobby’s name – for 22 years the town has held the Bobby DiClemente All Star Tounament. She shared old pictures of him with me – as well as something Bobby had written during his stay in the hospital. It was a note that he would hand to his friends and family when visiting him in the hospital. It explained what was happening each day in terms of his symptoms and prognosis – and, how he’d be treated and out of the hospital in no time.
“I lost it when I unfolded it – remembering it was only days after he passed when I packed it away in the box with a few of his things. I haven’t seen it since then. I almost forgot about that note – all of this time has passed. But reading that note I remember how strong he was for all of us. He didn’t want to believe or let anyone else believe that he was dying.”
Patti, thank you for allowing me to share your story. As a mom myself, I can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. How recovery from such a loss is something that only other parents who have lost a child might begin to understand.
Patti, face it. You are a hero – and a teacher. Your story teaches me to live each day with my loved ones to the fullest because you never know what tomorrow may bring. It also reminds me how serving others during a difficult personal time can aid in the healing process. Your ultimate selfless act reminds me when it feels like there is no hope, there is. Your conviction to “turn the bad into something good” wasn’t just good – it was extraordinary.
Forrest Gump’s mother taught him – “death is just a part of life – something we are all destined to do.” She also taught him- “you make your own destiny and have to do your best with what God gives you.” Patti, you’ve set the highest standard in doing the best with what God gave you. You were destined to be a loving mother to both Bobby and Mark – and destined to help save the life of a complete stranger.