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A timeline: Joe Weissinger gets his kidney

“So I shared it, and that’s when I started thinking about becoming his donor,” Bracciale said, noting the Weissingers were total strangers to her.

It was Halloween of 2017 when Mary Bracciale first saw the post her best friend, Joanna Schultz, shared on Facebook. It was about Joe Weissinger, the husband of Schultz’s co-worker and friend Bridget, who suffered from a rare kidney disease called Membranous Nephropathy. Schultz and Bridget both work at Jefferson Hospital. Essentially, Weissinger’s disease meant his body retained too much water. Long story short, he needed a kidney transplant. (For the long story, see the SPR’s original article on Weissinger, published in December of last year.) He set up a Facebook page called “Joe Weissinger needs a kidney” to get the word out.

“So I shared it, and that’s when I started thinking about becoming his donor,” Bracciale said, noting the Weissingers were total strangers to her. “I didn’t call right away to find out about being a donor. I just kept thinking in the back of my mind that maybe I could be a donor.”

After all, like Weissinger, Bracciale was also a blood type O positive.

The year 2018 arrives, and Bracciale thinks about it for several months. Around late spring/early summer, she makes a move.

“I finally called Jefferson and inquired to start the process of becoming a living donor for Joe,” she said. “Probably around late July I heard from Jefferson, and they sent me the questionnaire to become a donor. So I filled it out, emailed it back to them, and heard from someone probably the next day.”

After a conversation with a Jefferson representative, Bracciale’s next step was to come in for lab work. At this point, she had yet to tell anybody her thoughts about becoming Weissinger’s donor — not even her husband, Jeff. They go on a summer vacation together, and Bracciale decides against telling him until after the vacation. After all, she wants them both to be able to relax. She’d tell him after the vacation, but before the Jefferson appointment to come in for lab work. But things get in the way, and the time is ultimately never right. So she wakes up the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 8, tells Jeff she forgot about a doctor’s appointment, and leaves for Jefferson to complete the lab work.

“So I have the appointment, which, you know, went well,” she said. “They took 22 vials of blood from me for the testing.”

Bracciale gets home from her appointment, and Jeff asks what the appointment was about.

“I’m like, ‘Funny you should ask,’ ” she begins, “It was about becoming a kidney donor.”

Bracciale and Jeff talk about the process of becoming a donor, and after some time he tells her he supports her decision. It’s not that he wasn’t necessarily on board in the beginning, “He was just worried,” Bracciale said.

Aug. 17 comes, and the lab results are in. Bracciale is a match.

As of mid-September, the only people who know about Bracciale’s plans to donate her kidney are her husband, her boss at work and her family doctor. At this point, it looks like things are a go, but Weissinger doesn’t yet know about Bracciale. Bracciale knew there were a few times when Weissinger thought he’d had a donor, but things ultimately fell through. So she didn’t reach out to him. God forbid anything were to happen, she didn’t want Weissinger’s heart to be broken on yet another close call. Weissinger finds out later in the month.

“At the end of September, I get a phone call from my nurse coordinator at Jefferson saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing on Oct. 16?’ ” Weissinger said of the phone call that changed his life. “And I said, ‘Well, if you’re calling me, that means I’m getting a kidney transplant, I hope.’ And she said, ‘That’s exactly why I’m calling you.’ ”

Now the surgery date is set, and Bracciale and Weissinger move even closer to the organ exchange. At this point, Weissinger still doesn’t know who his donor is. He just knows he has one.

“I was in shock once I hung up the phone with Jean from Jefferson,” Weissinger said. “And of course my first reaction was to call my wife. So I call my wife and I tell her this is for real and they’re telling me this is really going to happen and her and I had a moment. We cried together on the phone, and I told her I had to go to call my mom, and I called my mom and my sisters and my brothers and told them all what was going on and my wife’s family all found out and everybody was reaching out to me and I’m just sitting here by myself in my room with nobody to talk to about this, and I just got so overwhelmed about how this was going to change my life. Then once I actually saw my wife, her and I embraced and we cried about it and we were all excited.”

On Oct. 8, Bracciale buys a get well soon card for Weissinger. She signs it “your donor” and Googles Weissinger’s address. She drives to the post office, but it’s closed. It’s Columbus Day. So she sends it through UPS.

Weissinger receives the card the next day, and posts about it on his Facebook page.

“To my Donor,” Weissinger’s post read. “Although I don’t know you, I love you. Bridget feels the same way, too. Thank you. We are looking forward to meeting you. You can personal message me or Bridget if you like.”

So that’s exactly what Bracciale does. They get in contact with each other that day and schedule a phone call for the next day, Oct. 10. At last, Weissinger knows who his donor is.

They try to schedule a time to meet before the surgery, but Weissinger lives in South Philly and Bracciale lives in Conshohocken. They can’t make it work, so they meet for the first time on Oct. 16 — the morning of the surgery.

“Once I finally met her, I gave her a big hug when I first saw her,” Weissinger said. “It was really like just embracing one of my older sisters, and I’m very close with my sisters … it was just this warm feeling.”

Bracciale, Weissinger and their spouses immediately hit it off.

“The four of us together, just BSing and getting to know each other — there was an instant click,” he said. “What she did for us — me and my family — it’s insane to think about how wonderful of a person she is just to do something like that.”

The surgery goes as planned, and today Weissinger is recovering and getting better every day. He’s been cleared to drive, cleared to pick up his kids and is back to coaching the South Philly Warriors JV football team, which won the championship in the CYO division while he was out on medical leave.

“I didn’t make any of the playoff games because that’s when I started to get closer to surgery, and I was told to be very weary about being around kids and getting sick and stuff,” he said. “So I kind of put myself in a bubble for a couple weeks, and then they won the championship game while I was in the hospital.”

Since the surgery, the two have become close friends. They text two or three times a week.

“We’ve become pretty tight,” he said.

As for Schultz — Bracciale’s best friend who shared the Facebook post that got the ball rolling — she was surprised to find out her longtime friend was going to be Weissinger’s donor. But not too surprised.

“Mary has always had a huge heart,” said Schultz. “She would do anything for a friend. She is that friend everyone can count on. Did I ever think she would donate her kidney to a total stranger? I would be lying if I said yes. Do I think that if I needed a kidney that she would get tested to give it to me? Absolutely. That is what makes this so utterly amazing.”

But according to both Weissinger and Bracciale, if there’s anything to take from this story, it’s that while donating an organ may not be easy, it’s not as hard as you think.

Bracciale said the risk of anything bad happening during the surgery — for the donor — was about the same as a woman having a C-section.

For more information about becoming an organ donor, visit registerme.org. For more information about becoming a living kidney donor, visit kidneyregistry.org.

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