Niagara Gazette

April 14, 2014

Vet wins 'life lottery' with new kidney

Niagara Falls veteran has second chance with new kidney

By Michele DeLuca michele.deluca@niagara-gazette.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — On a recent weekday afternoon, two Niagara Falls brothers were picked up by a limousine and whisked to a nearby airport runway where a private plane was waiting to fly them to Pittsburgh, courtesy of the U.S. Veterans Administration.

Shortly after take-off, the brothers peered out the window of the plane, from which they were able to see Niagara Falls from the air. The younger brother was awestruck by the aerial view of the very same river they used to skip rocks upon when they were boys growing up on East Falls Street.

“I told my brother on the plane that ‘The VA takes really good care of you guys in the military,’ “ said Greg Harris, who was accompanying his oldest brother for support on the journey.

The high-speed transportation had been organized to care for Willie James Harris Jr., a former soldier, but it was nothing compared to what came next — the procurement of a new kidney and a new life for Willie James.

There were only minutes to spare for everything to go as planned, so the eldest Harris brother (who goes by James), could get to the Veterans Administration’s medical center in Pittsburgh to take possession of a new kidney that would change his life. He had already been disappointed once on a previous visit. This time, however, everything went as planned and a kidney — donated by a 29-year-old killed in a car accident — was successfully transplanted.

That’s exactly how the Veteran’s Administration means for such an experience to go — planned with military precision, said the woman who is a first responder when organs become available for area vets. 

Karen Conway is the transplant coordinator at the VA WNY Healthcare system.  She’s the one who takes the call when an organ donor has died. It is her job to respond quickly as time is always of the essence. 

In James Harris’ case, the only way to get him and his brother to Pittsburgh inside the window of opportunity was with a limousine and private jet. 

“The travel department (at the hospital) and all the people involved really pulled this together so that when the veterans get the call, its not going to be our end letting them down,” she said.

“There’s so much that has to go right that we can’t control, I’m thrilled that everything went according to plan,” she said recently about Harris’ transplant through the VA National Transplant Program, which has been active since 1962 in transplant centers across the country. “Whatever hitch that was going to happen wasn’t going to happen on our end.”

The “hitchless” transplant has resulted in a new life for the former U.S. Army platoon leader, who served near the demilitarized zone in South Korea during the Vietnam War. 

The Woodlawn Avenue resident has been on life-sustaining kidney dialysis for the last three years, and underwent — without complaint, according to family — the time-consuming, three-day-a-week treatment that mechanically filtered his system.  All the while, he worked full-time as a truck driver and fume operator at Globe Metallurgic.

His girlfriend, Carla Pacitti, a cook for Niagara Hospice who has stood by his side throughout the ordeal, is grateful for James’s good luck.  

“I feel like he has won the New York life lottery,” she said, smiling at her partner of 17 years.

On a recent afternoon, just days after the surgery, Harris and Pacitti were surrounded in their Woodlawn Avenue home by several of Harris’ eight siblings and nieces and nephews.   

James’ sister, Betty Bibbs, is certain that he received the kidney because he went with her to church days before he got the call that an organ was available. During the service, two church leaders asked James to come to the front of the church and they told him “God has something good for you,” she recalled.

“God is an on-time God,” she added. “He knows when to come.”

James Harris simply said, “The blessings and the miracle are there. That’s all we know. We just thank the Lord for the blessing and the miracle bestowed on us.”

As James and Carla look forward to a long-awaited summer cruise free of a portable dialysis machine, those who work to find organ donors in the WNY region continue to try to spread the word about the gift of life. 

“There’s over 121,000 people in this country waiting for life-saving organs,” said Lindsey Czapla, marketing specialist for UNYTS, the organ transplant center in Buffalo. “And 18 people die every day simply because the organ they needed did not become available.” 

In addition, more than 11,000 people are waiting for organs in New York state, she said.

Conway said it’s important for those considering organ donation to take simple steps to let family members know their intentions. 

“The time to do it is when you go to renew your driver’s license,” she said. “So you don’t have to leave that decision to your family in their time of grief.”

FOR MORE INFORMATION April is Donate Life Month. For more information about organ donation, visit www.unyts.org. For more information about the VA National Transplant Program, visit www.va.gov/health/services/transplant.