Old friend gets third organ transplant with councilwoman’s help
A Brookhaven Town Councilwoman was elected in 2007 to serve the community. On April 26, she took the idea of public service to a whole new level.
Jane Bonner, councilwoman for Brookhaven’s second district, and Tom D’Antonio have known each other for almost 40 years. Bonner said she became friends with D’Antonio’s younger brother Steven in her seventh grade Spanish class at Middleville Junior High School in the Northport-East Northport school district, which has since closed, and the families have stayed in touch ever since. D’Antonio was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when he was 10 years old. He said the disease has “wreaked havoc” on his kidneys over the years. The 57-year-old EMT has a medical history that most would consider unlucky. He wouldn’t agree.
“I’m living proof that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” D’Antonio said.
He has had three successful kidney transplants and a pancreas transplant, and survived an acute coronary thrombosis, which was a 100 percent blood clot-blockage in a vessel of his heart in 2012.
The flip side to the hard luck of requiring three kidney transplant surgeries is the fact that three times, D’Antonio had a willing and able donor who was also a match. The first time was in June 1988 when his then girlfriend Cheryl, who he has been married to for 27 years now, stepped up and donated D’Antonio a healthy kidney. He said at the time, doctors told him the chances of his girlfriend being a match were one in a million.
In 1999, he underwent a pancreas transplant, which he said at the time was somewhat experimental. The result was the formerly insulin-dependent diabetic was essentially cured. But by 2002, the diabetes had done damage to his wife’s former kidney. This time, D’Antonio’s sister stepped up. She wasn’t an option in 1988 because she had just given birth.
Everything was fine until October 2012 when the blockage caused his heart to stop for about 14 minutes while he was riding the Long Island Rail Road one day. An EMT riding the train performed CPR to resuscitate D’Antonio. Luckily, the incident occurred near the Mineola train station, which is about five minutes walking distance from Winthrop University Hospital. Doctors told him they thought he’d have brain damage if he survived the ordeal, emphasis on “if.”
D’Antonio’s brain was okay, but the heart stoppage caused damage to his sister’s kidney. He was back in a familiar position. For a third time he needed a family member or close friend to step up and offer an organ that would save his life.
‘Once I make up my mind, I’m pretty steadfast and determined. I’m a big believer in God having a plan.’ — Jane Bonner
According to the National Kidney Foundation, more than 3,000 new patients are added to the kidney waiting list every month, and 13 people die every day waiting for a kidney transplant. According to the Living Kidney Donors Network, more than 80,000 people are currently on the waiting list, where most people remain for more than five years waiting for a life-saving donation while on dialysis.
D’Antonio found himself in need of a kidney with his options exhausted. In October 2015, Bonner invited D’Antonio and his wife to meet her and her husband, John Sandusky, to join them and some friends at the Huntington Lighthouse Festival in Huntington Harbor. Bonner and Sandusky sailed their boat from Mount Sinai, while the D’Antonios took the short trip by boat from their home in Eaton’s Neck.
“We almost didn’t stop — we didn’t want to intrude,” D’Antonio said about that October day. He revealed to Bonner he was in need of a kidney once again, and told her that a family member who might have been an option was not going to work out.
“I said, ‘I’ll do it,’” Bonner said. Taken aback, D’Antonio suggested Bonner should think it over and maybe discuss it with her husband and family.
“John!” D’Antonio said Bonner called out to her husband across the boat. “I’m going to give Tommy a kidney!”
That was all the discussion the Bonners needed, which D’Antonio said was apropos of their relationship.
“Once I make up my mind, I’m pretty steadfast and determined,” Bonner said. “I’m a big believer in God having a plan.”
On April 26, Bonner donated her left kidney to D’Antonio in what she called a “minor surgery” at New York Presbyterian Hospital.
As that master plan has played out since, Bonner said doctors discovered two precancerous polyps that were about two years away from manifesting into colon cancer during the litany of tests she had to undergo in preparation for the donation.
D’Antonio said he’s not sure what his outlook would have been if Bonner hadn’t offered to help.
‘I’m living proof that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’
— Tom D’Antonio
“I know that right now I wouldn’t be feeling as good as I’m feeling,” he said. “I was to the point, the week of and the week before the surgery, if I walked a block I’d have to stop and rest. It’s like a slow, miserable, downward spiral.”
Bonner has since shared news about the transplant on social media using the hashtag #ShareTheSpare, and plans to advocate for programs like the Kidney Paired Donation Pilot Program, which is managed by the United Network for Organ Sharing and is an option for patients with a living donor who is not a match.
“It’s more dangerous to drive to work every day than it is to live with one kidney,” Bonner said. “There’s no greater gift to give than the gift of life.”
Bonner, who missed just eight days of work, has been hesitant and uncomfortable with the baskets, flowers and cards she’s received since the surgery.
“There’s like this common element that runs through people who do that,” D’Antonio said. “They’re all like ‘it’s a no brainer.’ Clearly it’s more than that. That’s the thing that’s hard to express in words — how that makes you feel.”
D’Antonio shared what he said to Bonner in response to that hesitancy to accept thanks or praise.
“Get used to it.”