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Husband gave his wife a kidney but still needs a donor to save her

Rene Tucciarone saved his wife's life once before as her kidney donor.

But now he needs to find a stranger to save her again – and not just any stranger. It has to be someone with Type B-positive or Type O blood.

The kidney he gave his wife, Kani, 25 years ago lasted until 2009, when it failed.

Without another kidney to give, he has bought space on billboards, first in Niagara Falls and then in Cheektowaga, appealing for another donor.

"Kidney Donor Needed. Please Help Kani," it says, with a phone number: (716) 418-6802.

Kani's kidneys were destroyed by the onset of lupus in 1989.

And since her transplanted kidney failed, the 55-year-old woman has been undergoing dialysis. Rene, 56, is her dialysis technician. He obtained a machine and supplies, and underwent training to administer the treatments in the basement of their Royalton home, in a space Kani sardonically calls "the torture room."

Because of Rene's work schedule – he's a mechanic in the collision shop at Mike Smith Buick in Lockport – the three-hour treatments begin at 2:30 a.m., four days a week.

They used to go through the procedure six days a week, but good results from testing of the blood samples Rene takes from his wife and ships overnight to a lab in California enabled him to reduce the treatments from six to five per week, and later to four per week.

But after years of repeated punctures, Kani's veins simply can't take much more of the punishment of the wide-gauge needles and the pumping of blood and saline solution to and from the machine.

"I'm running out of spots," she said, choking up.

She now has a catheter protruding from the side of her thigh, which is used as the port for the dialysis treatments. The tubing was pushed up through her body, almost to the bottom of her heart.

Kani used to have a catheter in her shoulder, but in late July it burst through the skin, causing a bloody mess, and had to be removed.

Even finding a place in her abdomen to place a new kidney required elaborate testing. The three failed, shriveled kidneys in her body – including the one Rene gave her, which was placed in the right front of her abdomen – will not be removed.

The Royalton couple has no children, and Kani's relatives have been found not to be suitable donors.

So Rene turned to the advertising.

Rene Tucciarone is actively advertising for a kidney donor for his wife, Kani, including renting billboards in Niagara Falls and this one in Cheektowaga. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Going public

The first billboard was near Interstate 190 in Niagara Falls. The latest one is next to Genesee Street in Cheektowaga at the entrance to the Kensington Expressway.

That number listed on the billboard rings on a Tracfone the Tucciarones keep on their kitchen table.

"She did not want me to do it," Rene said. "I'm not real good at listening when she tells me not to do something."

On the back of the family's vehicles is a decal with another number, (716) 930-3385. That's Rene's cellphone.

He's also posted the numbers on bulletin boards at restaurants, gas stations and anywhere else you can stick a notice to a wall.

"I think he's nuts," Kani said the other day, shaking her head.

"That's beside the point," Rene said.

"I couldn't have made a better person to be my husband," Kani said, holding back tears.

She does that a lot lately.

Kani suffers from low blood pressure and sodium deficiency. She takes a sodium supplement, but she's limited to drinking a quart and a half of fluids a day, which makes things tough in hot weather.

Kani stays home for the most part. Sometimes she gets on the riding mower.

"She likes to mow. It gets her mind off things," said Rene, who first dated Kani in 1979, when they were juniors at Akron Central High School. They married in 2004.

The advertising has brought in a fair number of calls, Rene said. He's grateful to the callers, as well as to friends who sometimes drive Kani to medical appointments when his schedule just can't be juggled anymore.

But so far the search hasn't succeeded.

One woman who volunteered to give Kani a kidney went through two rounds of medical testing recently before doctors determined she wasn't a suitable match. But there are other calls, enough of them to keep the Tucciarones' spirits up.

Medical battles

It was hard enough to find a hospital willing to work on Kani's behalf.

The 1993 transplant was performed in the Cleveland Clinic. After the 2009 kidney failure, that hospital and Erie County Medical Center put her back on their transplant waiting lists.

But those hospitals de-listed Kani in 2014 because she also had heart problems. She needed a transaortic valve replacement, and it was hard to find a surgeon willing to do that operation in Kani's weakened state.

"I had to fire a bunch of cardiologists," Rene said.

Finally, a surgeon at the former Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle performed a successful operation.

Even so, that made her a worse kidney transplant risk, in the opinion of doctors. ECMC, the Cleveland Clinic and hospitals in Rochester and Pittsburgh refused to put her name on their waiting lists.

Upstate Medical University in Syracuse saw things differently. They placed her at the top of its list for kidney transplants from a living donor or a cadaver, assuming the organs match Kani's blood type well enough.

Rene, who pays nearly $600 a month for Medicare managed care to supplement his health insurance coverage from work, said insurance will cover all costs for a donor's testing, surgery and recovery, but the operation must be done in Syracuse.

Rene credits ECMC's Vascular Access Center for treating Kani to keep her veins functioning well enough to withstand dialysis.

So now, until some stranger steps forward to save her life, the Tucciarones continue to report to the "torture room" in the early morning hours, four times a week.

How long can Kani last?

"Unknown, but time is limited," Rene said.

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