It’s customary on Valentine’s Day for a husband to give his heart to his wife, but a kidney?
To a local couple, who underwent a transplant operation on Tuesday, it beats chocolate and flowers any day.
“It’s sort of surreal,” said Cindy Realmuto, a kindergarten teaching assistant at Springs School and mother of two, who was interviewed on Sunday, two days before the scheduled surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
Ms. Realmuto has been with her husband, Joe Realmuto, the executive chef of Nick and Toni’s, Rowdy Hall, and the other Honest Man properties on the South Fork, since the two were teenagers. In 2008, she was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or F.S.G.S.
“There is scar tissue growing between the veins in my kidney, and it’s collapsing the veins,” Ms. Realmuto explained. At diagnosis, her kidneys were functioning at about 50 percent. “But as my numbers started to drop, I got sicker,” she said. As of her most recent visit, her kidneys were functioning at “below 20 percent.”
“The doctor said it was like I was standing at the edge of a cliff, and I could fall off that cliff at any time,” she said.
A visit to a transplant team at Stony Brook made the couple aware of the possibility of finding a living donor. “There are hundreds of thousands of people on the New York waiting list,” Ms. Realmuto said. “It’s simpler if you can find a match from a friend or family member.”
Mr. Realmuto immediately offered to be the donor, as did a niece. When possible donors are tested, the doctors look for blood-type matches along with an antigen compatibility. Luckily, they were both matches, “but my niece just had a baby, and I wouldn’t put her through that,” Ms. Realmuto said. A friend, Diane Engstrom, also went for testing with Mr. Realmuto, and was found to be a match, but “Joe really wanted to do it,” Ms. Realmuto said.
“But he had high blood pressure, so he wasn’t a good candidate,” she said. Unperturbed, he went on a fitness program, changing his diet and dropping 25 pounds, and reducing his blood pressure. “He’d go to spin class at 6 a.m. with my girlfriends,” Ms. Realmuto said. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Besides her husband, Ms. Realmuto is overwhelmed by the support of the community. When a fuel delivery man was informed of their plight, he offered to donate. “He didn’t even know us,” she said, her voice breaking. “The love has been incredible.”
After the operation, the couple will stay in the hospital for a few days, under observation, before returning to the South Fork.
When the Realmutos heard that the date of the operation was Valentine’s Day, Ms. Realmuto said, “It was perfect.”
“It’s the perfect day,” she said. “It’s the perfect gift from the man I love. He’s saving my life.”