Everyone knows winter is the season of giving, but one Oak Park teenager gave something this Christmas that couldn’t be tied up in a bow. It had to be packed on ice, flown to California and transplanted into a stranger’s body. Joey Pascarella donated his kidney. His left kidney, to be exact, which weighed just about five ounces.
“I feel a little lighter now,” the 19-year-old joked.
Still recovering from his Dec. 21 surgery, Pascarella was at first reluctant to speak to Wednesday Journal as he is not one for the spotlight. He felt moved, however, to use his experience to raise awareness of the need for kidney donors.
Roughly 106,000 people are on the national organ transplant waiting list, with 87% in need of a kidney, according to the American Kidney Fund. With two healthy, working kidneys, Pascarella said donating one of his “felt obvious” to him.
“The surgery was low-risk to me, but very high reward for the recipient,” said Pascarella, a pre-med student at Sewanee University.
He had only ever had one surgical procedure before, a minor one at that. When he was three or four, he had tubes put in his ears. Hoping to become a doctor, Pascarella wanted in part to donate his kidney so that he could understand what going under the knife is like for patients.
Pascarella is known as a nondirected living organ donor, also known as an altruistic donor or good Samaritan donor, which means he donated his organ without having an intended recipient.
“I usually prefer nondirected donor because it is more value-neutral,” he said.
Pascarella has a profound drive to help others, but he is very pragmatic. He chose to have the surgery over winter break, so recovery wouldn’t interfere with his studies. He talks about his donation journey the way others might talk about parallel parking. Pascarella describes each detail matter-of-factly, even when a little emotional speech could be justified. He did, after all, save someone’s life.
Pascarella decided two years ago he wanted to donate one of his kidneys, but at 17, he was not legally allowed to. Donors must be 18. That did not deter him from sharing what he could. Pascarella donated blood platelets weekly – riding his bicycle to the giving site, having blood drawn, then bicycling home again. He still donates platelets and is on the bone marrow registry.
Organ donation kind of fell out of his mind for a time, he admitted, once he turned 18 and went off to college. He got back on track in May 2022, registering himself online through the National Kidney Registry, which Wednesday Journal has reached out to for comment.
About a week after he filed his paperwork, he was contacted by Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, which Pascarella selected as his transplant center. Not long after, he was consulting with professionals and undergoing psychological evaluations. His blood and urine were also tested to ensure he was able to donate.
“He had to pee in a jug for 24 straight hours when we were on vacation,” said Pascarella’s father, Andy.
Pascarella took himself to almost all of his appointments, wanting to be as active in the process as possible. He even told his parents they could just drop him off at the hospital on the day of his surgery. They, of course, stayed throughout the procedure.
“He really wanted to do it all by myself,” said his mother, Maria Pascarella.
His level of commitment impressed his parents, who were not overly thrilled with his plan – not because they did not believe it worthwhile, but because surgery can be dangerous. To them, it seemed like an unnecessary risk, but Pascarella’s well-researched arguments eventually won them over.
“We’re very, very, very, very proud,” his father said.
In October, Pascarella was alerted that a match had been found. For privacy purposes, all he was told was that his kidney would be transplanted to an adult with chronic kidney disease at UCLA.
Pascarella said he doesn’t need or want to know any more about the person who received his kidney. That organ no longer belongs to him, but he doesn’t miss it. And he has a photo of it too, which he called his “most prized position.”
“This is the most important thing that I’ve done in my life,” he said.
Pascarella was able to be discharged from the hospital in time for Christmas. He stayed one night after his kidney was removed Dec. 21. The first two days of recovery were painful. It felt like he had done a “million sit-ups.”
His kidney got rave reviews.
“The surgeon at UCLA – I was told by my surgeon – said it was the best kidney they’d seen in years, maybe ever, which just validates my inner beauty,” he joked.
A 73-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran from Peoria, Ill., received a kidney transplant Dec. 22 at Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Maywood, becoming the hospital’s 100th kidney transplant.
The recipient had been on a transplant waiting list since 2018 through a transplant center not affiliated with the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. He was evaluated at Hines VA’s Transplant Program last March and was able to receive a kidney transplant nine months later. Wait-time accumulated at non-VA hospitals can be transferred to another hospital, which can expedite the process, according to the hospital.
Hines VA first began offering transplants in Nov. 2019, becoming the country’s eighth VA kidney transplant program.