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After kidney transplant, Williamsburg couple ‘can make any day Valentine’s Day’


By Leha Byrd
University Public Affairs

Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2017

Bruce and Leah Luongo don’t have any plans for Valentine’s Day this year. But, eight months ago, Bruce Luongo received a gift from his wife that far outweighs the day’s typical cupid correlations.

Last June, Leah gave a kidney to her husband of 25 years. Bruce Luongo suffered from alport syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by kidney disease and loss of kidney function. He experienced perpetual fatigue. Initially, the couple thought they’d have to look further for an organ donor.

“We never even considered the idea that I might be a possible donor since we knew that we did not share the same blood type,” Leah Luongo said. “At the end of our first appointment with the transplant team, they asked if I would like to get tested. I told them that I would love to, but since we did not share the same blood type we wouldn’t be a match. This is when I discovered that my type O blood did not pose an issue.”

The good news meant Bruce could receive a kidney sooner and forsake dialysis.

“I am very thankful for that,” he said.

The alternative was Bruce’s placement on a kidney donor list to wait for a compatible donor or for someone to offer their kidney as a match. Either option posed an unpredictability that many on donor registry lists experience daily.

Life’s benefits

Though deceased and living organ donation both are of grave importance, living organ donation comes with several benefits. A living donor’s organs can last twice as long as a deceased donor’s organs. Only 3 in 1,000 people die in a way that allows for organ donations. Currently at the VCU Hume-Lee Transplant Center, there are approximately 95 patients waiting for a liver and 456 patients waiting for a kidney. Only 18 percent of transplants are from living donors.

The low numbers speak to the need for raised awareness and attention to living organ donation, said Marlon Levy, chair of the Division of Transplant Surgery and director of the Hume-Lee.

“Many people don’t consider living organ donation until it impacts them personally,” he said.

That was the case with the Luongos.

“I had no idea before this that there were so many advantages to having a living donor. It made sense once it was explained. It was just not something I had ever really thought about,” Leah Luongo said. “Now, I am so grateful for living donation and I try to get the word out about it when I can. I don't want people to be like I was, and to have never thought about it. I want to make it seem normal.”

‘A walking billboard’

The Luongos’ now have T-shirts that publicly express their sentiments toward living organ donation. During two local running events, Leah Luongo wore shirts that read #livingdonor #healthykidneys and "Live Life, Give Life.” They were conversation starters, she said.

“I am not much of a public speaker, but I am happy to be a walking billboard,” she said.

Since his procedure, Bruce Luongo said he has more energy and doesn’t need to nap. He is the owner of Tours of Williamsburg, which offers historical, informational tours of the city.

Leah Luongo said the couple’s experience at VCU Health was a delight.

“Everyone made the process so easy, before surgery and after. I wish I was better with names, because I had some amazing people taking care of me during our hospital stay,” she said. “The nurses were exceptional and the physical therapist helped us both get back up on our feet so quickly.”

Celebrating love

Outside Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center is Hume-Lee’s Donate Life flag, which is adorned with the Donate Life logo and raised whenever an organ donation occurs at VCU Health and the Hume-Lee Transplant Center, from a living or deceased donor. Throughout the year, Hume-Lee will highlight its 60th anniversary of the first organ transplant at the Medical College of Virginia, now Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, with events that shed light on organ donation.

Leah Luongo said she’s perplexed when asked about her sacrifice to her husband.

“I guess I really don't understand the question,” she said. “It was never a decision I consciously made. I was a match. Why wouldn't I? I am grateful that we didn't have to spend years looking for a donor.”

The pair doesn’t have plans this Valentine’s day and because of previous obligations might even be in different locations. But their recent experience gives them cause to celebrate love together, continually.

“When you are as lucky as we have been,” Leah Luongo said, “you can make any day Valentine’s Day.”

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