NEW CASTLE —
Joe DeCristoforo Jr. watched his friend and teammate round the bases.
There were the usual high fives for Steve Suchonic after he smacked a homer during the softball game — and one not-so-common exhortation.
As Suchonic took off, he heard DeCristoforo call, “Hey, take care of my kidney when you run to first base.”
DeCristoforo and Suchonic have known each other since kindergarten at the former Arthur McGill School. They both grew up on the North Hill and played football for New Castle High School, graduating in 1989. Later, they were rivals, as DeCristoforo was on Westminster College’s football team and Suchonic played for Geneva College.
Now, though, they’re back on the same team in another sense. And DeCristoforo has given a whole new meaning to going to bat for a friend.
In January, Suchonic received a kidney from the friend he has known for 36 years.
TIME OF NEED
DeCristoforo made a gesture that goes beyond the expectations of most friendships.
Still, he believes he just did what one friend does for another. Suchonic, 41, needed the kidney. DeCristoforo provided it.
While the two had lost some contact for a few years when DeCristoforo, his wife, Laura and their children moved to Camp Hill, Pa., they reconnected after both families relocated to Cranberry Township in the mid-1990s.
Suchonic was diagnosed with decreased kidney function 10 years ago. In 2010, tests showed the function was decreasing at a rapid pace, and he was placed on a regional list for kidney donation. In June 2011, he began an at-home dialysis treatment five days a week and started pre-transplant testing. By then, he wasn’t feeling well and had lost 30 pounds.
“We knew about Steve’s kidneys for quite some time,” DeCristoforo explained.
Meanwhile, Suchonic was told to talk to those close to him to see if they were compatible.
“I wasn’t big on accepting a living donor because I didn’t want anyone I cared about to have to go through that,” he said, adding his brother was tested but wasn’t a good match. “I mean, how do you repay someone who gives you a kidney?”
DeCristoforo was determined. He told his friend he wasn’t taking no for an answer when he volunteered to begin the proceedings for testing.
In December, DeCristoforo got to say, “I’m a match.”
Suchonic protested again at first. Then he realized he would do the same if the situation was reversed.
“I just sensed I was going to be the donor,” DeCristoforo said. “It was a weird feeling but I just knew.”
After meeting with a transplant coordinator and social worker, he also went through a series of tests including sonograms and CAT scans.
His family was supportive of his decision, DeCristoforo pointed out.
On Jan.y 15, both men were admitted to Allegheny General Hospital, where Suchonic’s surgery was done by a team headed by Dr. Ngoc Thai and DeCristoforo’s surgery was overseen by Dr. Kusum Tom.
DeCristoforo’s wife, daughters and parents, Phyllis and Joe DeCristoforo Sr. waited to hear word, as did Suchonic’s wife, Barb, and his family. Suchonic has a daughter, 13, and a son, 10.
Afterwards, “I ask to see Joe and they wouldn’t let me at first, but I insisted,” Suchonic chuckled. “We just needed to see that each other was all right.”
A SURGEON’S PERSPECTIVE
Organ donation can make such a tremendous difference in someone’s life, Tom confirmed.
Although the end result was positive, the situation didn’t go exactly as intended with DeCristoforo. Unforeseen bleeding occurred during the robotic arthroscopic nephrectomy — a minimally invasive procedure the hospital first performed about a year ago — prompting the surgeons to resort to conventional surgery.
“At that time, we took the safest route for the donor and made the decision to open him up and remove the kidney that way,” the surgeon said.
The arthroscopic procedure results in a reduction of pain and faster recovery. Also, one impact is helping to increase the number of kidneys available for the list of people who require such a procedure.
Between 20 and 30 live kidney transplants are performed at Allegheny General each year, Tom said, adding, “There’s a longer life span for someone with a live donor.”
The surgeon said the waiting time could be four to five years for a cadaver organ.
“That’s why I encourage and try to educate people that their organs can be left behind for so many people.”
Tom acknowledged that “Joe basically said, ‘I will be your champion.’”
“I’m feeling great,” Suchonic maintained, noting he will take two anti-rejection pills daily for the rest of his life.
DeCristoforo feels “90 percent good” now and has regular checkups.
Tom concluded that the outcome was a good one.
“We made the best of everything in a situation that went off course,” she said. “Joe came in healthy and shouldn’t have any issues.”
Suchonic emphasized that, “It was such a selfless act and it’s hard to come to terms with anyone doing that. It’s almost more than you can ask anyone to do. Joe changed my life forever.”
He takes it day by day — a philosophy DeCristoforo has always tried to follow.
“I ignored the what ifs regarding what may happen down the road. I never once reconsidered. I was thinking of Steve and his kids.”
DeCristoforo emerged from the bullpen at the right time.
It was like the old days. He did it for his teammate and stepped up to the plate.
NEW CASTLE —
Joe DeCristoforo Jr. watched his friend and teammate round the bases.
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