A blossoming love led to a lifesaving procedure for a local priest.
In January, Setauket resident Kara LoDolce donated her kidney to Father Jerry Cestare of St. James R.C. Church. When LoDolce first told him that she was going to donate her organ, he said he couldn’t believe it.
“I don’t know how many people can be that selfless,” he said.
The 55-year-old priest said his kidneys were compromised about nine years ago, and while he was careful about his health, at the beginning of last year he felt tired all the time and went for medical testing. He found out he had kidney failure and started dialysis in May, something he said is not a long-term solution for someone his age.
The priest said when doctors first told him to actively start looking for living donors, he felt hesitant because he grasped that someone was giving up something precious. While a few family members were tested, they were found not to be matches, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask others.
“How could I ask someone to do something like that just because I was sick?” he said.
Cestare said while he wasn’t afraid of dying or being incapacitated, he was afraid that he would lose what he loved to do — ministering.
The priest said the chain of events played out like a Hallmark movie.
LoDolce, 46, said she was compelled from the second she heard Cestare needed a new kidney. She and her fiancé, Scott Alu, 42, credit the priest for indirectly helping the two of them meet.
LoDolce said her soon-to-be husband met her in a gym, while he normally wouldn’t ask out a woman with tattoos, which she has, he remembered a recent conversation he had with Cestare. Alu was talking to the priest about looking for a relationship after a divorce, as well as being a father to two children. LoDolce said her fiancé was told to keep an open mind by Cestare, saying, “One thing that God does is he takes the broken pieces of your life and kind of reshapes them into something new, and you just have to be open to opportunities. You have to be open to every opportunity that God puts in front of you.”
When she met Alu, LoDolce lived in Sound Beach, but she said 2½ years ago she moved in with him in Setauket, and she’s been going to the St. James church ever since.
LoDolce said while the church didn’t make an official announcement about Cestare’s condition, she was waiting to hear back from him to discuss her upcoming wedding in May. She was surprised when he didn’t get back to her, and she asked the receptionist who filled her in on what was happening.
When she and her fiancé met with him, she asked if he was on the transplant list. He told her it would be a five-year wait due to his blood type being B+. After the meeting, she called her mother and found out she was B+ also. When she dropped off paperwork, she left Cestare a note saying she would like to be tested.
She went in for the tests and right before Christmas discovered she could donate her kidney to the priest. She bought Cestare a stuffed kidney-shaped toy and gave it to him along with a card and a letter.
“She’s about to start a whole new life, and she’s thinking of me.”
— Jerry Cestare
He said when she gave him the gift, he didn’t open it right away and brought it to his parents’ house where he was going for dinner. When he opened it, he was surprised by the beautiful card and then began reading the letter where LoDolce told him she was a match.
His father asked him to repeat what she wrote because he, “couldn’t believe it,” and the priest said he and his mother started crying.
“Kara felt from the beginning if she could undergo a few weeks of discomfort so that I could get back to work and do what I do best, she said it was worth it,” Cestare said.
The priest decided to announce the good news to the parish at Christmas Mass. Even though he didn’t want the service to be focused on him, he felt LoDolce’s act of kindness symbolized the season.
He said many faiths talk about love but LoDolce, he said, showed it through action and gave him his life, health and ministry back.
“Lots of people talk about love, this woman showed with her action what love is,” he said.
He said Kara and her fiancé received a few standing ovations from the parishioners at the Mass after he announced she was donating her kidney to him.
“She’s about to get married,” he said. “She’s about to start a whole new life, and she’s thinking of me.”
LoDolce said she never wavered from her decision.
“People tell me I did something for him, I don’t feel that way at all,” she said. “I truly feel like he did something for me and he changed my life.”
While most take three or six weeks before they can even go back to work, LoDolce said she felt great after a week, and she was walking two or three miles a day. She also credits both of their recoveries to the parishioners and friends.
“Everyone in the Three Village community has been praying for us,” she said.
LoDolce said she is now putting the finishing touches on her May wedding.
“I joke that both my kidneys will be going to the wedding,“ LoDolce said.
Cestare said he has found the story has inspired others who have heard it with many telling him that they are going to pay it forward by being a better person.
“God is using this experience not only to give me back my life but to touch the lives of others,” he said.
“People tell me I did something for him, I don’t feel that way at all. I truly feel like he did something for me and he changed my life.”
— Kara LoDolce
SBU experts explain living organ donations
Father Jerry Cestare and Kara LoDolce went to Stony Brook University Hospital for their transplant procedure. The priest said many may think they need to travel to New York City for such a procedure, but SBU has a transplantation program right on Long Island.
Dawn Francisquini, administrative director of Stony Brook Medicine’s Kidney Transplantation Services team, said the hospital has been performing the transplants since 1981. She described the program as family friendly and said the staff’s goal is to make patients feel like a person — not a number.
“They know when they come to us they’re going to receive personalized care,” she said.
The first step, she added, is to educate the patients and their family members about the entire procedure as well as what needs to be done before and after. She said it’s important for the family to be part of the conversation because there is a lot of information to be taken in. She added that a transplant is not a cure for kidney disease but a treatment.
Stephen Knapik, living donor coordinator at the medical center, said finding a living donor can save a person’s life as the waiting list for organ transplants can be several years long.
“I tell all the recipients you have to be your own living donor champion,” Knapik said.
He said he advises patients if they’re uncomfortable asking to get a friend to help spread the word. He also said sharing on social media has been successful in many cases, where after a request is posted, “The next thing you know I’m getting phone calls.”
Knapik said his role in transplants is keeping donors safe. In the case of Cestare’s transplant, he worked with LoDolce. He said donors go through multiple tests including CT scans, chest X-rays and cancer screenings such as mammograms and Pap smears for women and colonoscopies for those over 50.
“I tell all the recipients you have to be your own living donor champion.”
— Stephen Knapik
Once a donor is cleared through testing, a transplant team committee will discuss the donor.
“We want to make sure that we have dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s to keep the donor safe,” he said.
Knapik said once a donor is found the transplant team will work with the schedule as far as when the surgeries will take place. For example, he said, a teacher can wait until summer. All the costs are paid by the recipient’s insurance.
He said while LoDolce was quickly back to walking and resuming her normal routine, it’s unusual. Many donors may take weeks to recover fully and can’t drive for about two weeks or lift heavy objects for a few weeks.
“Everybody heals differently,” he said.
He added that after the procedures donors will be required to have checkups to make sure their remaining kidney is compensating and doing well.
“We can take anyone’s kidney out, but we have to make sure, 10, 20, 30 years later, that the remaining kidney is doing well,” Knapik said.
Francisquini said out of the 1,800 transplants the program has done since its inception, 1,000 patients still come to SBUH for routine follow-ups. She said anywhere from 270 to 300 patients are on the active waiting list at any given time, while another 200 can be in the evaluation process. The kidney transplant team performs 75 to 80 procedures a year.
“We have one of the fastest transplant rates in our region,” she said. “So that basically translates into if we put you on the list, we’re serious about transplanting you. We transplant you as quickly as possible.”
To learn more about Kidney Transplantation Services at Stony Brook Medicine and how to become an organ donor, visit www.stonybrookmedicine.edu/patientcare/transplant/organ_donor.