At least once each day, Maurilio "Mauri" Giannada thinks about a young man from Wisconsin named Ryan.
He has never met him. Never will. He doesn't even know his last name. But Ryan played a pivotal role in Giannada's life.
Giannada, 65, a retired Buffalo schoolteacher, is a lung transplant recipient. The lung he carries in the right side of his chest – the lung that enables him to breath normally, after years of struggle and suffering – came from Ryan, who died last summer in a skateboarding accident, a few days short of his 32nd birthday.
After being diagnosed with a lung ailment called ideopathic pulmonary fibrosis, Giannada was placed on a list of approved people awaiting lung transplants in September 2015. For 10 months, he agonized and worried. He wondered if a lung would ever become available for him, and it saddened him to know that, in order for that to happen, someone would have to die.
"It was the most anxious, agonizing time of my life," Gianadda said. "I didn’t know if I would ever get a lung."
[BELOW: Learn how you can become an organ donor]
Then, on the night of July 11, the phone rang.
"It was a lady from the Cleveland Clinic," Giannada recalled. "She said, 'We've harvested a lung. Are you ready for it? You have to get here by 1 a.m.' "
With one of his friends driving, Giannada arrived in Cleveland at midnight. The surgery began at 4 a.m. and lasted 14 hours.
A NEW LEASE ON LIFE
Today, the Amherst man lives a happy and active life. A lifelong bachelor, he travels frequently, often visiting family members in his native Italy. He's a big supporter of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and other cultural institutions. He loves going to the movies, walking on the Ellicott Creek Trailway and working out five days a week at the Jewish Community Center in Getzville.
A deeply religious Catholic, Giannada said he thanks God and Ryan every day. He's also deeply thankful to his friends, his doctors, nurses and other personnel who helped him at the Cleveland Clinic.
"Before I got Ryan's lung, if I walked 10 stairs down to my basement, I would be struggling for air until I turned blue. Now, I could climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa," Giannada said. "Lung surgery has a very high rejection rate. My doctors tell me I am like a miracle patient."
Giannada, who taught English as a Second Language to refugees from 34 countries before retiring from the Buffalo schools in 2005, said he feels "great" these days. But living with a transplanted lung comes with many complications.
Each day, he takes 40 pills, some of which have unpleasant side-effects. He had to give up one of his favorite activities – swimming – and he cannot go out in the sun without lathering up with an extremely strong sunscreen, because lung recipients are susceptible to skin cancer. He's restricted from eating certain foods, including grapefruit, shellfish and items from restaurant salad bars. The fruits and vegetables he eats have to be carefully cleaned with white vinegar and water.
Giannada travels back to the Cleveland Clinic every three months for bronchoscopy tests to determine how his lungs are holding up. He frequently has checks done on his blood sugar, his blood pressure and his lung capacity.
He doesn't complain about any of this because Giannada feels fortunate to be alive.
"When I was waiting for my lung, I saw kids at the Cleveland Clinic – 13, 14, 15 years old – who were waiting years for a lung," he said. "They had small chest cavities, so they had to wait for a smaller lung to become available. It was heartbreaking."
Organ donation was something Giannada never thought much about until he needed a transplant. "Most people probably don’t think that much about it, until it affects them or someone they care about," he said.
After his transplant, Giannada decided he would do everything he could to encourage people in Western New York to become organ donors. He decided to work with ONE8FIFTY, a not-for-profit organization started by Thomas Jasinski Jr., another organ recipient from Amherst.
Jasinski, 56, said he remembers going through the same anguish that Gianadda endured while waiting for a kidney transplant in 2012. After his successful surgeries, Jasinski decided to devote his life to encouraging organ donations, especially in New York State.
NEW YORK LAGS IN DONORS
It is upsetting to both Giannada and Jasinski that New York has fewer organ donors per capita than any state in America.
Only the territory of Puerto Rico ranks behind New York in terms of the percentage of adults who are designated donors, according to a survey by the advocacy group Donate Life America. The national average, based on 2014 data, is 50 percent, according to the group. Montana ranked highest, with 86 percent of its residents registered. New York was far behind most other states at 23 percent.
April is National Donate Life Month. Gianadda hopes his story will encourage people in the Buffalo area to become donors. He said people can check the ONE8FIFTY.org website for information and links for those who wish to become donors in New York State.
"There are so many people out there, just waiting. … Some of them die while they are waiting. This is so important," Giannada said.
He became emotional when he gave a reporter a copy of a letter he received last November from Ryan's mother. She did not reveal her last name in the letter, but she said she needed Giannada to know how much it meant to her that her only son's lung had helped save Giannada's life.
"I would love to share with you what a wonderful son, brother, uncle and godfather Ryan was," the woman wrote to Giannada. "He was always full of adventure. …Our Beautiful Angel. … As heart-wrenching as our son's death has been, it is a comfort to know that he lives on through others, like yourself."
"I show this letter to people, and they bust out crying," said Giannada, who said he is determined to travel to Wisconsin someday to meet Ryan's mother.
"It makes me very sad that a young man had to die for me to get a lung," Giannada added. "I want her to know, I want Ryan to know, that I thank him every day for helping me to live. I want them to know that a part of Ryan really does live in me and other people."
HOW TO BECOME AN ORGAN DONOR
Those interested in becoming an organ donor can visit unyts.org/checkyes and fill out an online form for the New York State Donate Life Organ and Tissue Donor Registry.
For more information, call 853-6667.
WHY IT MATTERS
Facts about organ donation in the United States:
– 124,000 adults and children are waiting for lifesaving organs.
– Every 10 minutes, another name is added to the national waiting list.
– 22 people die each day waiting for lifesaving organs.
– More than 500 New York State residents will die this year waiting for a transplant.
– One donor can provide lifesaving organs for as many as eight people – and impact 50 people through tissue donation.
– All major religions support organ donation.
– Age is not a limiting factor for organ donation.