Human organ transplants mean a new chance at life for some people, and for others, it means that a loved one has died. When the organ comes from a living donor, the donor and the recipient can both rejoice in the gift of life. Here are three stories of Catholics whose lives have been impacted by organ transplants. 

A daughter lost

A snowstorm caused a road accident that sent Malinda Cecchini Sherid and her daughter Kimberly Cecchini to the hospital on Feb. 2, 2001. Sherid suffered a severe concussion and the 16-year-old’s injuries were so extensive that she could not survive. She had checked “organ donor” on her driver’s permit, so the next day her brother, Fred Cecchini Jr., 19, helped their mother through the process of giving consent to donate her organs and tissues. 

“There were over 117 recipients, both life saving and life enhancing [such as bone and skin] transplants,” Sherid, who lives in Greensburg, Pa., told Our Sunday Visitor. “Her liver went to a 51-year-old woman in Philadelphia, her kidneys went to two recipients, her corneas were donated, and although her heart was unable to be transplanted, the heart valves went to two different recipients.”  

“It helped me through the grieving process knowing that in losing Kim that she went on to help so many other people through her gift of donation,” she added. 

Sherid, who had lost her husband Fred Cecchini Sr. to a heart attack 16 months before the accident, became a Volunteer For Life with the Center for Organ Recovery and Education and other organizations. She is an advocate for organ donations. 

“If my daughter had needed a transplant, I would be hoping for an organ so that she would live,” she said. “If I would want that for my child, why wouldn’t I do that for someone else?” 

Sherid
After her daughter’s death, Malinda Cecchini Sherid (right), at a Magnificat breakfast in 2010, became an organ donation advocate. Courtesy of The Catholic Accent

There have been hard times, she said, when she “didn’t understand the cross” she had been given, but her faith in God’s presence carried her through those dark days.

In 2007, she married John Sherid, who didn’t know her late husband and daughter, but has been supportive of her journey and the life that she had before. 

Friends called Kim a “bubbly” teenager with a good heart and a sense of humor. Her mother said, “She was my best friend. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about her. And there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of her recipients.” 

Priest gets new heart

Father Aloysius Thumma’s health deteriorated after he had a heart attack 13 years ago. The congestive heart failure was so severe that by last November, he could not celebrate Mass when he arrived at the convent of the Sisters Servants of Mary in Bronx, N.Y., where he was chaplain. 

Sangregorio
The SanGregorio family (from left) Elaina, Angelina, Tony, Marcus, Becky and Dominic. Tina Delauter of Blessings Photography

Mother Sylvia, who is a nurse, gave him oxygen in the convent infirmary and within two days he was in the hospital with life support keeping his heart beating. Ten weeks later, on Jan. 25, he had a heart transplant at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. 

Father Thumma, 61, was well enough to celebrate Easter Mass at Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Pelham Bay, where he is the parochial vicar. 

“I feel great,” he said. “I have no fatigue and no persistent cough. My walking was very slow and now I can walk for two hours and I don’t stop.” 

The experience, he said, strengthened his spiritual life when he had to put more trust in the Lord, in the experiences of life and in the medical system. He was not fearful when he was about to have the surgery that would remove his damaged heart. 

Father Aloysious
Father Aloysius Thumma says he has no fatigue or persistent cough thanks to a heart transplant earlier this year. Courtesy photo

“I thought that if I make it, my pain is gone,” Father Thumma told OSV. “If I don’t make it, my pain is gone and I will be resting in the Lord. This was the moment I was waiting for, and if the Lord wanted to call me, I believe in the afterlife.” 

He awoke from surgery to hear his friend, Msgr. Donald Dwyer, pastor of Resurrection Church in Rye, tell him that the surgery went well. Father Thumma squeezed his hand. “That was my first feeling of a new life,” he said. 

The heart came from a 25-year-old man named Brendan whose parents, Father Thumma learned, are proud that he gave life to someone else. 

“I have written to them and I told them that they gave me a second chance in my life,” he said. “I promised them that I would pray for them, and it comes naturally as I live my life day by day. My prayers are with that family, and that is a witness.” 

Dad gives son a gift

Tony and Becky SanGregorio’s son Marcus was born four years ago with biliary atresia, a birth defect where the common bile duct between the liver and intestine is absent. When he was 2 weeks old, doctors said he would need a liver transplant. 

“They did a surgical procedure to get him to a point where he would be able to handle it,” his mother said. 

Marcus was 2 when he was ready. The family then lived in Ebensburg, Pa., nearly a two-hour drive to where he was being treated at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. 

“They really don’t try to influence your decision, but they tell you the options,” Tony said. “We found out through research that people who get livers or kidneys from a live donor usually fare better.” 

Tony stepped up to donate a lobe of his liver and testing verified that he was a good donor match. He was out of the hospital in four days, but rare complications kept Marcus in for seven months, and he had to return every two weeks for surgical procedures on the duct. 

“It wasn’t until September 2011 that they got him stable and took out the catheter,” Becky said. “There were 511 days when he couldn’t take a bath. He had been sedated over 80 times — the transplant, then every two weeks.” 

Tony had come into the Church a couple of years before the transplant and, he said, the experience with his son strengthened his faith. 

“There were some points when I was frustrated and I was asking why these things happen,” he said. “I always was too concerned about that and I finally learned to let go and put it in God’s hands.” 

The family moved to Henderson, Nev., but will return to Pittsburgh for follow-up every six months. Marcus is too young to understand the “big boo-boo” on his abdomen, nor the concept of organ transplants. But his parents know how Tony’s gift changed their family. 

“I feel privileged to live in a time in history and in a place in the world where I was able to participate in something like this,” he told OSV. “How many times have you read in literature that certain people throughout history said they would give anything for their child to live? People have been wishing that for years, and we had an opportunity to do that.” 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Clearing Up Donation Myths and Misconceptions
Fear: If I sign up to be a donor, doctors may not do all they can do save my life in the event of an emergency. 
 
Fact: When you go to the hospital, the doctor in charge of your treatment will not be the same one making decisions about transplantation. The No. 1 priority will be to make you well.  
 
Fear: The rich and famous get priority treatment when it comes to receiving organs. 
 
Fact: A computerize system does the matching of donors and recipients, weighing in issues such as the severity of illness, blood type, time spent waiting. The United Network for Organ Sharing does an internal audit of celebrity donations to make sure no special treatment has been given. 
 
Fear: My organs will be harvested before I die. 
 
Fear: I’m too old to donate organs. 
 
Fact: There’s no cutoff age for donating organs. Medical history is a greater factor than age. 
 
Fear: My family will have to pay for my organ donation. 
 
Fact: There is no charge to families for organ donation, though the transplant recipient will incur the cost of organ removal. 
 

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