By Jerry Del Priore
Inquires came far and wide, as far as California, in fact, but Sauter said he never expected his miracle would come from someone just 50 feet from his home.
After the logistics of the operation were worked out around a year later from the time when Connizzo first agreed to get tested, Sauter had a new kidney. When Sauter was able to fill up two bags with urine, which happened almost immediately, it indicated that the kidney was working properly.
“When you come out of the operation, you’re in la la land,” recolleted Sauter, who’s around two months removed from the surgery. “The nurse told me the urine bag was filling up. The next day, I was feeling great.”
There were 30 people who went through various testing to determine whether or not they were suitable donors for Sauter. But they were disqualified due to different medical reasons.
However, Connizzo was a glorious match, thrilling both parties.
“I am thankful to everyone who stepped up to be tested,” the retired, decorated teacher, athletic director, football and track coach at Passaic Valley High School said. “But I was cautious because I have had (so many) people who were turned down for one reason or another. When I was told it was a match, I was ecstatic.”
Connizzo, a former firefighter and emergency medical technician (EMT), found out that Sauter needed a living kidney donor through a Facebook page setup by Sauter’s sister in-law, Donna Tissot, who was vital in helping to find a matching donor for him.
Tissot said she spent countless hours advocating for her brother in-law in order to find an appropriate donor for him.
“I kept on advocating and it paid off with Rob,” Tissot said of connecting the two for the much-needed operation. “I started advocating relentlessly. I’m the type of person who doesn’t give up when I have a goal. I wasn’t about to give up on Nick. He calls me a pitbull with lipstick.”
She added: “If he didn’t need a kidney, he would give one himself, I’m sure of that.”
Tissot’s unyielding dedication and time-consuming effort wasn’t lost on Sauter.
“She was relentless in terms of getting the word out,” he said. “If I didn’t have Donna (helping me), I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now.”
As he was going through the testing procedure, Connizzo didn’t tell Sauter what he was doing because he didn’t to want to raise his expectations, only to have his spirits dashed.
But Connizzo said Sauter found out through the grapevine that he was getting tested for the lifesaving operation. More importantly, though, they were both elated when they discovered that Connizzo was a fitting donor for the transplant.
“I didn’t want to get his hopes up if I wasn’t a match,” Connizzo, 34, explained. “He was very supportive of me just considering being a donor for him. He was ecstatic when I was approved for the surgery. He was very emotional, I was very emotional. Once I found out the kidney took, I was a mess. I was crying tears of joy.”
A graduate of Passaic Valley High School in 1973 and Rutgers University in 1977, Sauter, 63, relied on anti-inflammatories to cope with the terrible neck and knee pain as a result of the years of playing the violent collision sport of football (he was part of the undefeated 11-0 Scarlet Knights team in 1976).
But the medications he was taking over the years claimed its toll on Sauter’s body, causing end stage renal failure, also known as end stage kidney disease — the final stage of kidney disease in which complete or almost total kidney functions have been lost and patients will need to depend on renal replacement therapy, whether it’s dialysis or a kidney transplant to stay alive.
The former offensive lineman said his kidney function gradually declined, causing him to feel ill and forcing him to eventually endure two years of dialysis. It was a process that occurred three times a week for four-hour sessions, usually more because Sauter’s blood pressure needed to return to his normal before the dialysis center was permitted to release him.
During that time, Sauter developed a nasty blood infection from the port in his chest used for dialysis. The infection traveled down to his knee and settled there, he said. It resulted in doctors having to remove the knee replacement he received over 20 years ago for 12 weeks, then have a new one surgically put in when the time was right. It was followed by weeks of physical therapy so he could walk normally.
Unfortunately for Sauter, the infection disqualified him from the cadaver donor list, and he could only receive a kidney from a living person, all the while his dialysis treatments continued.
Sauter said the procedures were grueling and painstaking, interfering with his normal way of life. But it kept him alive for the time being.
Sauter noted that the life expectancy of a person on dialysis is approximately 10 to 11 years, often with much less energy while clinging for dear life as he or she waits for a new kidney.
While there isn’t an exact number, because of factors such as age, patient’s condition, and protein in urine, among other elements, kidney experts believe that the average life expectancy is 4.25 years and only 23% of patients can live for 10 years.
“You feel tired and weak all the time,” he explained. “You just don’t feel your best. It’s not a fun life. I wouldn’t have made it to 70.”
Five weeks removed from the operations, however, Sauter and Connizzo both said they are doing well.
While Sauter cannot be around crowds of people because of immune system limitations until May 12th, he noted, Connizzo is returning to work as a salesperson for an electrical supply company in Paterson.
Connizzo pointed out that being a living donor isn’t as scary as most people would think. In fact, he said, it helped him improve his physical well being, and educated him on the entire donor process.
“I didn’t know much about being a living donor, or organ donor, for that matter,” Connizzo admitted. “But, as it turns out, there aren’t many limitations. I was out of the hospital in 28 hours. The recovery has been amazing. Everything that the medical staff told me would happen, has. I’m right on track (in the recovery process).”
He added that he’s been taking better care of himself, dropping 10 pounds due to his heightened level of health self-awareness because of the surgery.
“It has given me the feeling of feeling better about myself,” Connizzo said of his improved overall health.
To make matters more gratifying, Connizzo has received an outpouring of love and support from Sauter’s friends and family members, via cards, phone calls, emails, as well as positive press.
He even was bestowed with a heartwarming thank you card from Sauter’s 11-year-old granddaughter, expressing gratitude for him for saving her grandfather’s life, which brought a huge smile to his face, Connizzo said.
But he doesn’t want himself hailed as some sort of hero for the unselfish act. He rather the deed itself standout.
“I didn’t do this for the recognition or awards,” he said. “I rather the act itself be recognized rather than the person (doing it). Anyone can do this (organ donation) as long as they meet the physical requirements.”
While Connizzo has remained humble throughout the entire time since donating his kidney, Sauter feels he can’t thank him enough, even going as far as calling him family.
“I am very honored to have him as part of my family,” Sauter exclaimed of Connizzo becoming an honorary member of his family. “It takes a hero; he’s a hero. He saved my life.”
To learn more about kidney and organ transplants and how you can assist with its efforts, log onto the New Jersey Sharing Network at https://www.njsharingnetwork.org/.
The NJ Sharing Network is a non-profit organization responsible for the recovery and placement of donated organs and tissue for those in need of a life-saving transplant.
Nearly 4,000 New Jersey residents are currently awaiting transplantation, according to its website.