Two things happened simultaneously. First, Colleen Norman, 53, got the “five years, all clear” notice after her tangle with breast cancer. Then she saw an episode of American Ninja Warrior starring a young man who had donated a kidney to a friend. She reached for the phone and called Beatriz Moreira, mother of Anthony, 12.
Even before Anthony was born, doctors knew something was amiss. He had two operations in-utero, and was born two months early. He has spent his entire life in end-stage renal disease. That means he’s never been in the ocean. He’s never been to school. He takes more than two dozen medications every day. He spends 12 hours a day on an at-home dialysis machine that keeps him alive but takes a toll on his other organs. His mom, Beatriz, quit work when he was born to become his full-time caregiver and homeschool Anthony and his brothers — Edward, 18, and JJ, 10 — alongside her husband, Joe Moreira.
The timing of the phone call from Colleen was crucial. Just days earlier, Anthony’s doctor raised the possibility of putting Anthony back on the organ transplant list, as he was healthy enough to undergo the surgery.
“The real hero is Colleen,” said Beatriz Moreira. “She is the one who started this Christmas miracle. It’s happening so fast. I keep asking myself, ‘Am I dreaming, or is this for real?’”
On Dec. 11, at 6 a.m., Anthony and Colleen went into surgery at Jackson Health System in Miami, each with their own surgical team. There’s just one catch — Anthony didn’t get Colleen’s kidney. It went to another patient in a similar, critical situation, who was a better match. A family member of that patient gave a kidney to Anthony, also a better match with fewer chances of rejection. On that day, four surgical teams operated in concert to transfer the gift of life, from two patients to two patients who need it very badly, in what’s called a “Pairing Program.”
“The ultimate thing is that Anthony gets a kidney. I don’t care who gets mine, as long as he gets one,” Colleen said, the day before the surgery.
Both Colleen’s family (she’s married to Monroe County Sheriff’s Office employee James Norman) and Anthony’s family have been on pins and needles since the offer. Colleen went through tons of testing — blood work, colonoscopy, EKG, ultrasounds, MRIs, MRIs on the kidney, and even a psychological evaluation. Anthony’s family has been working hard to keep him germ-free. Even a simple cold could derail the whole operation.
“He even asked the doctors if they couldn’t operate a day earlier. He said, ‘Can we do it today?’” Beatriz said.
The transplant will make a dramatic improvement in the life of Anthony and his whole family.
“I’m not going to call this a miracle, but this is a huge blessing however it happened,” said FWC Capt. David Dipre, a family friend. “This will honestly change their lives, Anthony and his brothers and his parents.”
And that’s how the kidney connection was made. Joe, Anthony’s dad, plays drums in a band with Colleen’s husband, James Norman, who plays guitar. The third member is Dipre, who plays the keyboard in the In Pursuit band.
Colleen said it was an easy decision to make, to give up the “spare” she doesn’t need, in part because her husband James did exactly the same thing for the wife of a friend five years ago.
“And he’s healthy as a horse,” she said. “The only thing different is that you can’t wait if you need to pee, and you shouldn’t have ibuprofen.”
All of Colleen’s medical care and testing is completely free. The incision is arthroscopic, made through her navel. The recovery period is rapid.
“This costs me absolutely nothing. It costs me my time, and my patience because I can’t wait to get this done,” said Colleen, who works in the court system as a substance abuse counselor in Marathon. Through research, Colleen said, she’s learned so much about living donor transplants, and how badly they are needed. Pleas are soaped on the back of cars and posted on Facebook.
Beatriz said that before Colleen’s offer, the prospect of going back on the organ transplant list was almost too discouraging.
“You can spend years on the list. People die every day waiting,” said Beatriz. “I’ve never asked (someone to be a living donor). You don’t want to get your hopes up, and then when something happens, you’re down in the drain. I, and my whole family, have to be strong and positive because this is a fight that we do daily.”
The Moreira family has kept the trials to themselves. In fact, it didn’t really come to light until Hurricane Irma flooded their home. A terrible circumstance on its own, it was possibly deadly — think black mold — for Anthony. Sarah Brawer, an organizer for Presents in Paradise, became aware of the family’s situation last year this time when it became apparent the family needed a new computer to continue to homeschool the boys.
“I met the family maybe a handful of times in 2017. I knew that Anthony was ill, but didn’t know to what extent,” Colleen said.
Just days before the surgery, Colleen and Anthony — with families in tow — met for dinner. They meant to take a photo, but got too wrapped up in a game of Uno and spirited conversation.
“He’s made a list of the things he’s going to accomplish when he gets off dialysis,” Colleen said. “When he’s all better we want to take him out to the reef to go snorkeling. That would be a big adventure.”
The Moreira family is having a low-Key Christmas in 2018. But a certain “angel” suggested that they could use some gas gift cards for follow up medical appointments on the mainland. Contact, [email protected].