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Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner speaks at the Organ Donor Enrollment Day kickoff event at Stony Brook University Hospital Oct. 6. Photo from Bonner’s office

By Rebecca Anzel

Registered organ donors are hard to come by in New York state compared to the rest of the United States, and for one elected official in Brookhaven, that’s not going to cut it.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (C-Rocky Point) did not hesitate when her friend Tom D’Antonio said he needed a kidney. She decided right then, at the Huntington Lighthouse Music Festival in Huntington Harbor in September 2015, that she would share her spare.

She underwent comprehensive medical testing at the end of the next month to determine if she would be a viable donor — a blood test, chest X-ray, electrocardiogram, CT scan, MRI, psychological evaluation and cancer screening, to name a few.

“It’s the ultimate physical you’re ever going to have, and by the blood test alone several people were disqualified,” Bonner said. “For once in my life, it turned out that I was No. 1. And it worked out really, really well.”

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner and her friend Tom D’Antonio after their surgeries to transplant her kidney into his body in April. Photo from Jane Bonner
Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Jane Bonner and her friend Tom D’Antonio after their surgeries to transplant her kidney into his body in April. Photo from Jane Bonner

The surgery was April 26, a Tuesday, at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Bonnor was home that Friday and missed only eight days of work. She said she just had her six-month checkup and she is in good health.

“Jane didn’t just save my life, she saved my family’s life,” D’Antonio said. “Donating an organ doesn’t just affect the person getting the organ — although certainly it affects them the most — it affects everyone’s life.”

Bonner said she takes every opportunity to share her story to bring awareness about the importance of being an organ donor.

“I want to be a living example to show that it can be done because it’s life changing for the recipient and only a little inconvenient for the donor,” she said.

There is a large need for organs in New York. More than 9,700 people are on the organ waiting list, and someone dies every 18 hours waiting for one, according to LiveOnNY, a federally designated organ procurement organization.

New York ranks last among the 50 states in percent of residents registered as organ donors, despite surveys showing 92 percent of New Yorkers support organ donation. Only 27 percent of New Yorkers are enrolled in the state registry, versus the average of 50 percent registered across the rest of the country.

Stony Brook Medicine and Stony Brook University hosted the Organ Donor Enrollment Day event Oct. 6, including Bonner, in a statewide effort to boost the number of registered organ donors.

“Our residents need to be reminded about the importance of organ donation,” Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) said in a statement. “Along with stressing how one organ and tissue donor can save multiple lives, understanding and debunking the social and religious myths about organ donation are also critical to turning the tides in New York as we currently rank last in registered organ donors in the nation.”

Dawn Francisquini, transplant senior specialist for the hospital, said volunteers enrolled 571 people.

“New York has a very large population, so it’s going to take a lot to get us up to where the other states are,” she said. “But we’re making progress.”

There are two ways to become an organ donor. One is to be a living donor, like Bonner. A potential donor does not have to know someone in need of an organ to donate a kidney, lobe of liver, lung or part of a lung, part of the pancreas or part of an intestine.

“I’ve been able to accomplish really amazing things, but this is a step above that. Satisfying is not even the word to describe it.”

— Jane Bonner

“Living donation is so important because not only are you giving an organ to someone, so you’ve saved that life, but you’ve also made room on the list,” Francisquini said. “So you’ve saved two lives by donating one organ.”

The most common way is by registering when filling out a driver’s license registration or renewal form to be considered as a candidate upon death. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, though, only about three in 1,000 deceased people are suitable for organ donations.

Doctors determine whether organs like kidneys, livers, bones, skin and intestines are medically viable for a waiting recipient and they typically go to patients in the same state as the donor.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation Aug. 18 allowing 16 and 17-year-olds to register as organ donors. If they die before turning 18, parents or guardians are able to reverse the decision.

“By authorizing 16 and 17-year-olds to make the selfless decision to become an organ donor, we take another significant step to grow the state’s Donate Life registry and create opportunities to save lives,” Cuomo said in a statement.

Francisquini said she thinks this new law will make a big difference. Previously, because those under-18 were not allowed to express their wishes when filling out a driver’s license form, many would not register as donors until years later when renewing their license.

Since her surgery, Bonner has shared her story in speeches, panel discussions and on social media using the hashtag #ShareTheSpare.

“I really feel like this is much better than anything I could accomplish in my professional career,” she said. “Through the support of the people that keep electing me, I’ve been able to accomplish really amazing things, but this is a step above that. Satisfying is not even the word to describe it.”

Old friend gets third organ transplant with councilwoman’s help

Tom D’Antonio and Jane Bonner spend time after a successful kidney transplant surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Photo from Bonner

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.

Tom D’Antonio and Jane Bonner spend time after a successful kidney transplant surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Photo from Bonner
Tom D’Antonio and Jane Bonner spend time after a successful kidney transplant surgery at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Photo from Bonner

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.

Tom D’Antonio, his wife Cheryl and Jane Bonner sail on the open seas, which is where Bonner first told D’Antonio she’d like to donate her kidney. Photo from Bonner
Tom D’Antonio, his wife Cheryl and Jane Bonner sail on the open seas, which is where Bonner first told D’Antonio she’d like to donate her kidney. Photo from Bonner

“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.”

Michele Martines smiles with her son Christian, 21, prior his heart transplant at Westchester Medical Center on Saturday. Photo from Michele Martines

A call at 11:47 p.m. last Friday changed the life of a 21-year-old Greenlawn man and his family for the better. On the other end of the line was a heart.

With tears of joy streaming down her face, Michele Martines gracefully accepted the heart on behalf of her son, Christian Siems, who was in desperate need of a transplant after suffering from congestive heart failure as a result of a genetic disease.

“We packed everything; we were running around scared trying to call people,” Martines said describing the moments after finding out her son would be getting a new heart.

Martines said she was overwhelmed with emotion as the moment she had been waiting for happened. She was happy and scared for her son, but she said he was ready.

“He was ready to go, ready to go, ready to go,” Martines said. “He wanted the heart.”

The quest for a new heart began on June 28, 2012, when Siems tried to donate blood at school. A nurse noticed he had an irregular heartbeat and suggested he see a doctor. His mom took him to the pediatrician, who suggested he see a cardiologist.

After having an echocardiogram, a test used to see how the heart is beating and pumping blood, he had to undergo an immediate test that showed his heart was functioning at less than 20 percent capacity. Doctors had to install a defibrillator, which delivers a dose of electrical energy to the heart, because Siems was at risk of cardiac arrest.

The condition was manageable with medication until last September, when Martines noticed something wasn’t right with her son.

“His heart started to fail,” Martines said.

Doctors found 80 pounds of fluid in his body as a result of congestive heart failure. He was rushed to Huntington Hospital and then airlifted to Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, where he went into severe cardiac arrest.

“He was dying,” his mom said.

Siems underwent surgery and was living because a machine and a mechanical device helped his heart beat, Martines said.

Finally, in November, he was well enough to come home and his mom stepped in to tend to him as they patiently waited for a heart. While he was a priority on the donor list, some people can wait as long as 20 years, according to Siems’ doctor Alan Gass, the family’s cardiologist.

Gass said Siems was in need of a transplant and was lucky his wait was just months instead of years. Another factor helping the young man with his condition was his age, the doctor said.

“Young people can compensate well, even though they are getting worse quicker,” Gass said.

But while Siems was able to compensate, young people fall apart quickly, and his heart was deteriorating even though he was being treated for his condition. The need for a heart was vital.

On Saturday, just 12 hours after appearing at a press conference with County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in an effort to promote organ donation, Siems received the call that a heart was ready for him.

The family got into the car to drive to the hospital in Valhalla and anxiously waited for the surgery. At 7 a.m., the family said their goodbyes as Siems was wheeled off to get the heart he had been desperately waiting for.

While her son was getting prepped for the surgery, Martines was pacing back and forth, and ultimately she came in contact with the doctors who had her son’s new heart in a cooler. The small amount of doubt she had disappeared, as she said she knew her son was going to be just fine.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It made it real that it was really happening.”

After a few minor complications and 14 hours in surgery, Siems’ new heart was in his chest and ready to go. And while he was unable to speak following his surgery, he used a pen and paper to let his loved ones and doctor know he was doing just fine.

“The best I felt in five years,” the white piece of paper read. The family teared up at the note. Siems’ dad, Gerald “Gerry” Siems, who was also a heart transplant recipient, died in 2013.

The young man is expected to stay in the hospital for roughly two weeks, according to Gass. In a few weeks, he will be able to return to a normal life, which entails playing sports and doing what he loves.

While Siems’ story ended well, the wait for organ donations may be far too long for some people. According to LiveOnNY, a nonprofit organ donor network, roughly 10,000 New Yorkers are waiting for various organ donations at any given time. On average, 18 people die every day while waiting for organ transplants in the U.S., according to the group’s website.

One donor can save and improve the lives of 58 people through organ and tissue donation. To learn more about organ donation, visit www.donatelifeny.org.