‘All in the family’ resonates with kidney donors

Story and Photo By Christine Bordelon, Clarion Herald

For more than one reason, members of the Centanni family give thanks for the gift of life and health this holiday season.

Over the past 20 years, not just one but two family members have donated a kidney to an uncle, prolonging both men’s lives.

The most recent kidney transplant surgery involved Cara Hollier, 24, giving her uncle, Joe Centanni, now 59, her left kidney this spring at Ochsner Multi-Organ Transplant Institute. Cara said her Uncle Joe had kidney disease for years and had been on dialysis.

“I knew he was sick, but he didn’t want anybody to know how sick,” Hollier said about her Uncle Joe, whom she said practically helped raise her father. “We see him all the time, but we found out how sick he was in August 2018.”

By September 2018, Cara began testing with her brother, Blake, to see if either was a match.

Father, daughter donors

Twenty years ago, Cara was 4 when she witnessed her father, Wayne Schilling, donate a kidney to his mother’s brother – his godfather Bruce Centanni, now 57 – as a young adult. It was something she never forgot.

Since then, her family also has participated in kidney walks and transplant picnics.

“We grew up with all that, so when they told Blake and me about my uncle, we said, ‘Let’s go get tested,’” Cara said. “It was no big deal. He needed one, and they were asking family members if they could get a blood test.”

Other members of their family also were tested, but it was Cara who was a match for her uncle.

“I would do anything that could keep him here longer,” she said.

Cara said testing was probably the most time-consuming part of the one-month preparation period. It involved blood work, tissue typing, cross-matching, a urine analysis, X-ray, EKG and nuclear medicine renal scan to determine her kidney function. Cara also had to quit smoking two months prior to the surgery.

“Kidney transplants have come a long way in 20 years,” she said. “They are so much safer now. There is a lot more testing and information given to donors. Back when my dad did it, he wasn’t given too much information. I got a 22-page booklet that I had to read and sign, and throughout the process, they kept asking me, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’”

At first delayed

The first surgery date in November 2018 was cancelled after her Uncle Joe’s health wasn’t where doctors wanted it to be. It was postponed until March 2019. Cara said she and her uncle were in high spirits the day before and attended the Old Metairie St. Patrick Day Parade together.

While Cara stayed in the hospital only two days due to a reaction to anesthesia, her uncle remained longer due to a shift in the donated kidney’s position and other illnesses.

Both Cara and her uncle are doing well – as are her father and his Uncle Bruce 20 years after their transplant. In fact, Cara, Uncle Joe and others recently participated in the kidney walk in Audubon Park with other family members.

  “I’m actually younger than my dad was when he donated his kidney,” she said. “My grandmother laughed that we keep breeding so we can donate kidneys.”

In fact, Uncle Joe is doing so well, he and his immediate family went on a vacation during Thanksgiving, something he had been unable to do for years. The whole family will gather at his Kenner home for Christmas.

As an unexpected gift from the Centanni family, a kidney bean necklace was given to Cara for her generosity. She said she doesn’t take it off.

Faith in family

Having strong family ties dates back to Cara’s grandparents, Joseph and Lupe Centanni, who helped babysit her as a child and often brought her to St. Mary Magdalen Church in Metairie.

“Our family – no matter what or how much they make you mad – they are going to be there for you if you need something,” she said.

Due to her age, her Uncle Joe told her – even the day of the surgery – she could change her mind and back out of surgery.

“I’ve always been one of those people that if you had something you could give, why not?”

Cara said the surgery hasn’t affected her health or changed life much. She is studying to be a dental hygienist while working. She just needs to drink more water and eat healthy. She bears a scar on her belly button and three small marks at the laparoscopic camera sites.

“I definitely would do it again, whether it was for my uncle or somebody else,” she said, adding how she agreed to donate to someone else if doctors realized her uncle wasn’t a good candidate during surgery.

Cara is on Facebook groups with other donors, but said her family was behind her 100%.

“It’s just nice to know all his health issues are settled,” Cara said. “We’re not on edge waiting for bad news. We can all relax this year.”

Harvesting an organ from a living donor increases the success of transplants and survival rate, said Tracey Eldridge, community development and programs manager with the National Kidney Foundation of Louisiana. “Kidneys coming from a deceased donor last an average of 15 years; and much longer from a live donor.”

In Louisiana, kidney disease affects 460,000; more than 10,000 kidney patients are on dialysis; and over 1,900 are waiting for a kidney transplant.

For kidney disease or transplant information, visit www.kidney.org or call the National Kidney Foundation of Louisiana at 861-4500.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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