October 29, 2019

One last plea for a donor kidney, then a Facebook connection

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Will Gallagher was in his early 20s and needed a kidney transplant; a 21-year-old acquaintance came to his rescue.

Will Gallagher had almost given up on Facebook when he decided to post one last plea.

He needed a kidney, was on the waiting list for an organ donor and had tried for months to find one himself. He shared the living donor link from VanderbiltHealth.com over and over; 20-25 people messaged him that they had applied. One person matched but decided not to proceed.

“Then one night — I remember it like it was yesterday — It was 2:30 in the morning, I said, ‘I’m going to try one more time’,” Gallagher said. “I posted it on Facebook just asking and shared the link for Vanderbilt to take the questionnaire. Two or three weeks later, Carissa messaged me. She’s like, ‘Hey, I passed the test and I passed the blood work. We’re a match.’ She was like, ‘So I’m going to go ahead and make an appointment and is January good to come down there and we’ll go?’”

Carissa Buccieri was an acquaintance and Facebook friend when the match was made around November 2017, but their bond strengthened as they worked toward Gallagher’s transplant on March 15, 2018.

At the time, Gallagher was 26 and living on dialysis in Florence, Alabama, with his wife and new baby. Buccieri was 21, and living with her Marine husband in Twentynine Palms, California, when she added to her prayers – both praying for Will and then for signs from God that she should donate.

Now, “I thank God every day for her,” Gallagher said.

The road to transplant

Gallagher, now 28, was born with underdeveloped kidneys, and complications led to the lesser-performing kidney being removed when he was about 2. He lived with one kidney until about age 23 when he began going into kidney failure. He was nauseous and had no energy, but he thought it was just because he wasn’t eating right. His wife Melanie and his mother, Marnie Tabor, suspected something more and began encouraging him to go to the doctor.

“Within six months, I really started going down, but I was stubborn. I wouldn’t go to the doctors, and I was always working sixty, seventy hours a week,” said Gallagher, who works as a convenience store manager and volunteer firefighter. “When I started getting really sick, I thought it was just me overworking and kept pushing it off. Then my wife finally told me, ‘No, you’re going to the doctor.’ She made the appointment and within a few hours they had called her back to get me to the emergency room because my body was full of toxins and my kidney had stopped working.”

Within a day, Gallagher was on dialysis.

“I was scared,” he said. “I didn’t know how long you could make it on dialysis. I know a lot of people just don’t, they’ll just give up. But I remember when I was laying in the bed I was just, I was angry. I was blaming everything else and everybody and then my wife had reminded me that I still had working limbs, to basically suck it up, and get out of bed, that I’m going to live on.”

Gallagher was on dialysis three times a week for almost three years. He knew at that point that he would need a new kidney. Dialysis was tiring but brought relief, and it’s where he learned to be his own advocate.

He researched and chose Vanderbilt for his kidney transplant.

“I heard a lot of good things about it in dialysis” in North Alabama, he said. “I had asked people who were going up and were on the list, and they always said Vanderbilt was one of the best.”

Gallagher was put on the wait list for a kidney, but also sought his own donor.

Turning to Facebook

For a year and a half, maybe two years, he posted on Facebook asking people to be tested to be living donors. That came with some heartbreak: One friend was interested, got tested and decided against going through with it. “I had a few people say, ‘Hey, I took the survey. I passed,’ and then I never heard anything back from them. You don’t want to badger people,” he said.

After taking a 6-month break from trying, Gallagher hit send on that post that prompted Buccieri to call Vanderbilt. She had followed his decline through his Facebook posts.

“I knew for a while that he needed a kidney,” said Buccieri, whose father used to work with Gallagher. “I was aware that he was on dialysis and needed a kidney. Once I started getting older, more mature, I started to realize he needs the kidney…It just slowly over time became more and more real to me that this was a serious issue.”

Her husband Daniel was deployed in Japan when she started the process but was home by the time Douglas Hale, M.D., performed her operation and Rachel Forbes, M.D., transplanted her kidney into Gallagher on that March 2018 day at Vanderbilt. Buccieri, now 22 and working in her church office at Palms Baptist, said she was feeling great weeks after surgery and described it was “a really easy, easy process,” though the experience is different for everyone.

“I tell them all the time, ‘I’d do it all over again’,” said Buccieri, who gave her left kidney to Gallagher. “I keep saying, ‘Do you want my right one, too?’

“We are pretty close now. Sometimes, he’ll text me and say, ‘I’m craving pickles? Why? Did you do this?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes, that’s me! That’s a piece of me inside you.’ We actually joke around a lot about it.”

These days, Gallagher is “doing great — just working and living the dream,” he said. He became a reserve police officer a few months after the transplant in addition to his job as a salesman for a convenience store wholesale company.

The Gallaghers’ son Benton is now 2 and a half, and the young father is able to keep up with him now.

Gallagher’s kidney is doing well, and he is feeling strong under the care of Vanderbilt nephrologist Anthony J. Langone, M.D.

“I feel great,” Gallagher said. “I’ve got energy. I don’t miss out on a lot of things like I did when I was in dialysis. It has been a blessing.”

Are you able to donate?

As news spreads that former Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth is in need of a kidney donation, this video provides important points that the Vanderbilt Transplant Center – the Southeast’s leading provider for organ transplantation – would like for potential donors to know.Along with specific physical requirements, others include the ability to travel to and remain in the Nashville area, where Vanderbilt is located, for a period of time. We encourage organ donation for those who are eligible to help us deliver the personalized care we provide for all of our transplant patients every day. To learn more: spr.ly/6017EvRXX #bethegift

Posted by Vanderbilt Health on Thursday, July 11, 2019

Learn more

The Vanderbilt Transplant Center is one of the South’s main providers of kidney, heart, liver, lung, pancreas, stem cell and bone marrow transplants. Learn more by clicking here.

Learn about organ donations and how you can register at Donate Life Tennessee.

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