Medics defy blizzard to make kidney transplant happen

Michael Balsamo
Associated Press

Stony Brook, N.Y. – — Melanie Chirichella had been waiting a year and a half for a kidney transplant when she finally got the call from her doctors Saturday that they had found a perfect match in South Carolina.

“It was like a miracle,” the 64-year-old told the Associated Press. “When she called and said, ‘We have a kidney for you,’ I almost fell off the bed.”

But there was a problem: A blizzard was raging up and down the East Coast. The medical team would have to beat the elements and the clock to make sure the transplant surgery happened while the organ, taken from a brain-dead patient on Friday morning, was still usable.

In the end, Chirichella got her new kidney, but it required a combination of daring and improvisation, maybe even a little recklessness. And more than once, it looked as if she and the organ might not even make it to the operating room.

At first, emergency crews told her there was be no way an ambulance could navigate through whiteout conditions to bring Chirichella the nearly 20 miles from her home in Bohemia, New York, to Stony Brook University Hospital on Long Island.

But paramedic Pete Amato was undeterred. A decade ago, his brother had received a lifesaving kidney transplant. He knew there wouldn’t be time to wait. He hopped behind the wheel of a hospital SUV, turned on the lights and sirens and hit the road.

“This needs to happen,” Amato remembered thinking. “I knew the sense of urgency.”

Ideally, doctors try to transplant a kidney within 24 hours of its removal, but that can be extended to 48 hours under the right conditions.

The kidney, plus a second one bound for a different patient at New York City’s Presbyterian Hospital, had left Charleston, S.C., on a Delta flight Friday evening.

The storm had already begun to disrupt air travel by then, but this flight got through fine. Airlines are informed when a transplant organ is aboard and the flights get special status to avoid delays. .

The kidneys arrived at the New York City offices of the donation coordinator, LiveOn NY, at 9 p.m. Friday, just around the time the snow began to fall in New York. Then they had to undergo a battery of tests. Final results weren’t available until 9 a.m. Saturday, when the wind was howling and the snow coming down hard.

Wilson Li, an organ preservationist at LiveOn, was given the job of delivering both kidneys with the help of a driver from the medical transportation company.

After undergoing the 3 1/2-hour operation, Chirichella, whose original kidneys were damaged by diabetes, is recovering well.

“I saw the look on your face — that shock when I got there,” said Amato, recalling the moment he arrived at her door. “Somebody wanted us to meet.”