Donated kidney links co-workers for life
One night over dinner, Georgia Perry made an incredible offer to her co-worker and guest, Walter Philipkosky.
She offered him a kidney. And after much thought, he accepted. And on Tuesday, the successful transplant took place at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.
It wasn't the first time she had done so. But after seeing him suffer for 18 months following exhausting, trice-weekly sessions of dialysis, she could no longer bear to see him go on like that.
Perry and Philipkosky were co-workers at Model Cleaners in Charleroi. He had been close family with Perry's family for a few years before his health began to decline.
The 53-year-old Long Branch man suffered renal failure in January 2009. He began dialysis in March 2009.
Because renal failure is hereditary, Philipkosky worried that if he received a donor kidney from a family member, that person could face dangerous consequences if that person's other kidney failed.
"I did not want to expose them to any of the problems I have," Philipkosky said.
One other person was tested, but was not a good match.
Perry initially offered to be a donor shortly after Philipkosky fell ill.
"She stunned me. I was grateful for it," Philipkosky said.
Philipkosky refused the offer at first, concerned because Perry has a family.
But Georgia Perry and husband, Mark, sadly watched Philipkosky's health decline.
"When he first started at dialysis, I saw how bad it was for him," said Georgia Perry, 37, of Perryopolis.
She didn't give up.
"After a year of dialysis, I offered it again," Georgia Perry said. "He said he might consider it.
"I told him 'I want to get tested to be a donor.' He said, 'If you really want to, I really appreciate it.'"
Long months of dialysis had worn on Philipkosky, although few saw what he was going through.
Georgia Perry would pick him up in Speers after dialysis sessions. She would often stay with Philipkosky after he returned home because he was so weak.
"I was really worried about his health," Georgia Perry said.
Despite his health issues, Philipkosky insisted on maintaining his 40-hour-a-week schedule. Model Cleaners President John LaCarte juggled Philipkosky's schedule around medical treatments.
Philipkosky worked with Georgia Perry on a couple company projects. He works in the internet technology department. She is operations manager in the appraisals division. He joined the company in 2006. She is a 17-year veteran of the company.
"Model's a great place to work," Philipkosky said. "John and his brother were great in accommodating me as an employee."
After Philipkosky and Perry agreed to the transplant, she underwent an extensive 2 1/2-month process that included blood batch and DNA tests.
Three weeks ago, it was determined Georgia Perry was a good match. The transplant surgery was conducted Tuesday.
"The doctor called me right after surgery and said it was an excellent kidney," Mark Perry said.
"As soon as they put it in Walter, it responded."
Dr. Ngoc Thai, director of the center for abdominal transplantation, performed the surgery. He said the kidney began to function within minutes of being transplanted.
Thai said Philipkosky's chances of living a long life are good, and his quality of life has been greatly enhanced.
Living donors make up about 40 percent of all kidney donations nationwide, Thai said. The rate is nearly the same here, although it is as high as 75 percent in the Minnesota area.
"As we learn more about living donors - and the assurances that it is safe - we'll see more of this," Thai said.
The key is to make sure the donor is "super healthy," Thai said. The kidney is transplanted smoothly from the donor to the recipient, ensuring it is out of the body for only a brief time.
Thai said living donors involving people who are not blood relatives is rising. Still, he was impressed by Perry's gift of life.
"What she's done is a phenomenal thing," Thai said.
Philipkosky was walking the day after the surgery.
"After a year and a half of dialysis, I really appreciate it," Philipkosky said. "She stepped up to the plate. She's my hero."
"She's an extraordinary person," Mark Perry said. "She's just a good-hearted woman and excellent mom. Walt's a dear friend of ours. She wanted to do something for him to save his life."
Philipkosky and Perry were guarded in who they told about the plan because they were not sure if it would happen
LaCarte said Perry came to see him before testing began.
"We talked about her fears and her strong desire to help Walt get better," LaCarte said.
LaCarte said he was aware the Perrys were helping Philipkosky.
Philipkosky stayed with them when his home was without power in February. Mark Perry mowed the lawn at Philipkosky's home last summer.
Georgia Perry admitted she was somewhat fearful going into the surgery.
"I was scared because I have two little kids, and I didn't want my decision to affect them. I was only worried about not scaring them. I was only worried about waking up."
Philipkosky was like a member of the Perry family even before he became sick. He is like an uncle to their children, Wyatt, 9, and Morgan, 7. Georgia Perry is like a little sister, he said.
Philipkosky is not married, and most of his family lives elsewhere.
Every Thursday became "Survivor" night for Philipkosky and the Perrys. They regularly ate dinner together on Saturday nights.
"I think this whole experience will bring us closer," Georgia Perry said. "He looks at me as a hero. I don't think people do enough what they should.
Philipkosky said he looks forward to a future without dialysis.
"It really eats you up," Philipkosky said. "I really liked working, and John (LaCarte) rearranged my scheduled so I could work."
He also had to restrict fluids to the equivalent of a 2 liter bottle every 2 1/2 days while on dialysis.
"Now this is like a dream come true," Philipkosky said. "They want me to drink. Just to eat and drink normally is great."
"He can be normal again," Georgia Perry added.
Mark Perry said that, hopefully, Philipkosky can get out and enjoy life.
"He told me he can't wait to have a big glass of chocolate milk," Mark Perry said. "That was his favorite thing. I'm going to buy a whole gallon of chocolate milk.
"We're very happy for him."
Although others have called Georgia Perry "a hero," she spurns the title.
"I don't think that," Georgia Perry said. "I was just trying to give him another chance at life."
"We're proud of them," LaCarte said. "Our company motto is to 'care for our customers, communities and each other like family.' What a great example of caring for each other like family."