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TRANSPLANT RECIPIENT'S FAMILY URGES ORGAN DONATIONS

You will probably breathe in and out more than 100 times while reading this story, without realizing it.

It's not so easy for Stephen Holesko of North Tonawanda.

Rarely in his 20 years of life has he been unaware of his breathing.

Or more precisely, his difficulty in breathing.

Stephen, the son of Steve and Joan Holesko, was born with cystic fibrosis, a lung disease that usually leads to a premature death.

Life has been almost a constant struggle not only for Stephen but for his parents, who have devoted their lives to keeping him alive.

He has required almost around-the-clock medication and attention, which his parents have provided with the help of a nurse who comes in periodically.

He was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 6 months after his parents noticed he was not gaining weight. Since then, Stephen has been admitted to Buffalo Children's Hospital 35 times, six for surgery. A portion of one lung was removed when he was in the fourth grade.

Children's Hospital has been Stephen's second home, his family said, and his doctor there, Drucy Borowitz, has become a good friend.

Three years ago, when Stephen was 17, Dr. Borowitz told him that his lungs were deteriorating and that he should consider a double lung transplant.

That's when his name was added to a waiting list at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for a donor.

There is no known cure for cystic fibrosis, a disease inherited from genes present in both parents. Stephen's older brother, Patrick, 29, does not have the disease.

Stephen received a second lease on life last month. And none too soon -- estimates of his life expectancy were down to six months.

After being on the donor waiting list for three years, the Holeskos got a telephone call from the University of Pittsburgh at 10 p.m. on Feb. 10.

"We think we have located a donor with a match for Stephen," the caller said.

A match for Stephen was almost miraculous for two reasons: his rare B-positive blood type, and the need for not one lung, but two.

Stephen's lungs had been almost totally blocked by mucus produced by the disease.

"Be here in four hours," said the caller from Pittsburgh. "While you're on the way, we will be doing tests to be sure of the match."

What did Stephen and his parents think when they got the call?

"We were elated," said Stephen. "The waiting was over."

Stephen's father drove his wife and son to Prior Aviation at the Buffalo Airport where they caught a Mercy Flight to Pittsburgh, while the elder Holesko drove to the Pennsylvania city.

The Holeskos were met at the Pittsburgh Airport by an ambulance that transported them to the medical center, arriving at 2 a.m. on Feb. 11. A team of doctors, led by Dr. Robert Keenen, chief of cardiothoracic surgery, had confirmed the match of the donor's lungs with Stephen's.

It took the hospital staff 90 minutes to prepare Stephen for the eight-hour, high-tech surgery.

By that evening Stephen, drifting in and out of consciousness, asked for a TV set so that he could watch a favorite program. Unfortunately, he couldn't stay awake for it.

After two weeks in the hospital, Stephen was transferred to a nearby Pittsburgh hotel to join his parents.

After returning to the hospital a week later for additional treatment, Stephen was released to return home to North Tonawanda March 14.

March 19 was a red-letter day for the Holesko family. That's when the ever-present oxygen cylinders were removed from their home, no longer needed.

"Now I'm determined to live as normal a life as I can," Stephen said.

A 1995 graduate of North Tonawanda High School, he wants to resume classes at Daemen College, where he is a junior studying graphic design.

How did Stephen find the courage to fight on, and never give up?

"The support of a loving family, caring friends, strong religious faith . . . and a sense of humor," he said.

The Holesko family is not talking now about Stephen's illness to seek sympathy. The Holeskos kept quiet about their problems for 20 years.

"Everyone has problems," Stephen's mother noted.

In appreciation of their son's "new lease on life," the Holeskos want to help others.

The waiting time for donor organs, not only lungs, but hearts and livers, is growing longer. It used to average two years and now it is closer to three.

The Holeskos are speaking out to urge others to consider becoming potential donors. As it is, many people in need of a transplant die while waiting for a donor.

"If you don't feel comfortable carrying an organ donor card, but think you might like to be a donor, be sure to let your relatives know," Mrs. Holesko said.

And Holesko points to his bumper sticker:

"Don't take your organs to heaven. Heaven knows we need them here," it reads.