Credit: GOOD Morning Wilton

April is National Donate Life Month, with Living Donor Day observed on April 5, 2023. Both are celebrated by the National Kidney Foundation.

According to the Organ Transplant and Donation Network, almost 90,000 people in the country are waiting for a kidney donation — over 900 people in Connecticut alone.

So it’s only right for GOOD Morning Wilton to celebrate Wilton’s own kidney donation story, a story that has now become one about a gift that keeps on giving.

It started as an effort by Jake Arnowitz, Eli Ackerman and Tyler Casey, three (now-former) Wilton High School students who produced a video to help their beloved school counselor Dann Pompa find a much-needed kidney transplant. Of the hudreds of people who saw the video and dozens who stepped up to be tested to see if they were a match, Wilton resident Dave Cote was the generous volunteer who donate a kidney to Pompa.

Now, another resident is sharing their story publicly about how that very same video inspired her to also step forward and become a living donor. And while Arnowitz, Ackerman and Casey may not have known it before today’s story, the video they produced on behalf of one WHS teacher has now helped save at least one more person’s life.

“I don’t think I ever would’ve thought about it or done anything about it had those boys not done that video,” R.C.* told GMW. She has asked us to maintain her privacy and is sharing her story for two reasons only: to hopefully inspire other people to consider becoming a living donor and to let the three WHS alumni know their effort has made a difference far greater than they first anticipated.

“That inspiration came from their love of Mr. Pompa and wanting to do for him. And I just thought that was awesome. I hope what they did can continue on by me sharing now.”

R.C.’s Kidney Donation Story, as told to GOOD Morning Wilton (this account has been edited for clarity and length)

I don’t think I would’ve ever thought about donating a kidney if it had not been for the three young men … [pause, as R.C. holds back tears] It’s emotional. I’ve never treated it emotionally too much during the almost two years. But I never would have thought it had it not been for that video for Dann Pompa.

I don’t know what made me think I could do that. And I was not the only one who reached out to Yale and said, ‘I’m willing to be considered as a kidney donor.’ Obviously I wasn’t selected, and I thought that was going to be it.

But the transplant donor coordinator did ask me at the time, would I be willing to consider donating for somebody else? She talked about the need in Connecticut, just at Yale, and also the national need.

I knew of Dann Pompa from my children who went through Wilton High School. They never had him as a guidance counselor, but I knew of him. I knew he was a good person, but it also made me think there are plenty of good people out there who need and are waiting for a kidney.

So I threw my hat back in the ring to start the process of evaluating whether they thought I would be a good donor, and also whether I thought it was a good thing for me to do.

The Yale transplant program was extremely thorough, making sure you’re physically ready for it, that you’re a good candidate and that you’re emotionally ready for it and any consequences that come from that. They covered more than there was, there was nothing I didn’t expect.

You go through a lot of screenings — you have to be in excellent health. They did a lot of testing on me physically. You do interviews with a social worker in the transplant program, with a psychologist. They’re trying to really make sure that you know what you’re getting into, both risk factors physically as well as emotional factors, because it’s not always successful. The risks to the donor, if you’re in good health, are I think pretty minimal. But the transplant’s not always successful for the recipient and are you willing to live with that result? They want to make sure you’re emotionally prepared.

You get your own donor advocate, somebody in the transplant program that’s with you all the way, making sure this is something you’ve thoroughly thought about, even to the moment that they’re about to roll you into the operating room. You could say at any point in time, ‘No, I don’t want to do this.’ They’re respectful of that. You can stop this process at any point in time. 

They also check in with your spouse to make sure they’re comfortable with it as well. Family is probably one of the hardest hurdles to get over, because first they’re worried about you personally — what if something goes wrong? Are we going to lose my spouse, my mother? There are risks, like any surgery, you’re under anesthesia. But if you’re not really healthy, they’re not going to do it.

One of the things that my family asked was, ‘What if you ever need a kidney for yourself?’ Basically, I’m at that perfect age to be a donor. I’m not too young, and I have enough health history that the likelihood of me ever needing a kidney is probably very little; on the other hand, I’m not too old — there’s a certain age organs aren’t as healthy as they once were, so that was sort of a sweet spot.

The other thing which made a difference for me, but to my family as well, was if we need a kidney, by entering the National Kidney Registry and joining the exchange program, I get to give my immediate family members vouchers. That voucher means if I ever do need a kidney and nobody else [in my family] has claimed a voucher, I go to the top of the list. If any of my immediate family members who have a voucher need a kidney, they go to the top of the waiting list. (Only one though, it’s one for one, so not everybody.) But it does give a little bit more comfort knowing that, God forbid one of them does need a kidney, they’ll get one.

R.C. saw the video about Pompa at the end of 2020 and reached out to Yale in January 2021. By the spring of 2022, she was cleared to be a donor. In August 2022 she was matched with a recipient. With the confluence of the COVID pandemic, the surgery wasn’t scheduled until this past October, almost two years after she saw the video.

That whole process does take a while. By spring of 2021, I was pretty set this was something I was going to do. And my family recognized my resolve to do it. [What got me to that point] is a combination of several things. First of all, I’ve led a very fortunate life — great family, I live in a great community, I have a good career going, so I’m not in want of anything. So some recognition of that.

Another part is, there’s so much vitriol in the world and I just wanted to do something positive for somebody else that I don’t even know, and they don’t need to know me. Nobody needs to know I did this. I just wanted to do something that puts something positive out there. And it’s a gift to the recipient, a gift of extending their life and their quality of life. 

It’s also a gift back to the donor because it gives you a little bit of peace of mind. You did something. That question of, can one person make a difference? I didn’t need to know the person. I still don’t know who the recipient is. It’s a female, and I know [she’s] in the Washington, DC area. And I know the initial transplant was successful. I don’t know her status right now, long term. Hopefully she’s doing well.

They ask you how much you want to know or don’t want to know. And they also have to respect what the recipient wants. But that can affect who you get matched with a little bit. But it wasn’t about me knowing who the person was or anybody knowing what I did. It was more about doing that positive thing. I’m not a doctor, I’m not a first responder. It was a great opportunity to do something for somebody else.

That was my frame of mind. I wasn’t even nervous going into the operating room. I’m doing this and there’s no second guessing, it just all came together. I had the surgery and I recovered really fast.

I would say I had a really easy recovery — I’m sure not everybody has as easy a recovery. It is major surgery. I mean, you are being put under, but these days they do such an excellent job of keeping you comfortable. There’s all the risks associated with any major surgery but they take such good care of you. They obviously let you know of everything and they want you to be comfortable — and they absolutely want you to survive. 

It’s fascinating. The next day when my surgeon came to see me in the hospital, he said, “I can tell you that your kidney arrived in DC into the operating room [there] as you were coming out into the recovery room [here].” That’s how fast it got down there. They use a courier service and a chartered plane and it’s just off to the races. And it turned pink as soon as it was attached to the recipient. But it’s just amazing.

Everybody’s recovery is different, but I was out of the surgery on a Wednesday, home Thursday, walking around a little hunched over — it’s like almost having a C-section, with three laparoscopic holes, an incision down below where they take out the kidney. I really had no internal pain. They give you a pain block internally, so you don’t feel any pain for like the first 48 hours. I think they had me on a pain killer for a day, but it was just fairly mild. I think I took my last Tylenol on Friday.

By Monday I was back working from home on my computer. Not that I was supposed to [laughs]. I wasn’t supposed to drive for two weeks, they don’t want you to be in a situation where you have to make a strong reaction and move your torso around. After week two, I was back in my office part-time and I just wasn’t allowed to exercise for six weeks. You’re mending the muscles.

It was absolutely fine. Life went back to normal. There are things you have to be conscious of — you always have to check with your doctor about medications, you have to make sure you keep your one kidney left in good shape. So you have to watch certain things. But you keep your once-a-year internist.

Yale follows you. Obviously there was a post-surgery visit, and then a couple weeks later, another visit, I had a two-month visit and then a six-month visit, and then I think there’s a two-year visit and then you have access to Yale should you need anything. Just back to my normal routine.

I started thinking, well, what else can I do? 

I reached out to Yale and asked if there was any role that donors can take in being an advocate? They said, yes, and they’re going to engage me in that. Anything I can do to get the word out there about my experience, not to garner attention to me, but to hopefully maybe inspire even one more person to consider it. And who knows, maybe the video the three young men made, maybe there’s more of me out there.

I want them to know their video helped contribute to another person’s life being extended and hopefully a better quality of life. I wouldn’t have thought about becoming a donor had that video not been produced. That inspiration came from their love of Mr. Pompa and wanting to do for him. And I just thought that was awesome. I hope what they did can continue on by me sharing now.

For people reading this, if you’re not already an organ donor on your driver’s license, consider becoming one. And if you at all think that you could be a donor for somebody else, it’s so worth it. Not only are you giving a gift to somebody else, but you’re getting so much more yourself. For somebody who hasn’t gone through physically donating a part of their body to somebody else, you imagine how much of a sacrifice it is. Clearly, you understand the scope and the importance of it to you and what it means to do that. But what’s taken the place of that is just so much bigger and so much more sustaining. Your kidney was physically sustaining, but what you’ve now earned from the act of donating is just so much more nourishing to your soul.

For more information about the Yale New Haven Transplant Center, call 866-925-3897. Visit the Yale Center for Living Organ Donors online.

YouTube video

Editor’s note: The article was updated to reflect that R.C. was cleared to be a living kidney donor in 2022, not 2021.