Family, friends and Upstate transplant staff rally to help Brewerton man receive kidney from cousin who lives in California
Jan. 7 update: Billy McConnell, Jr. successfully received his cousin’s kidney on Jan. 6. McConnell said, “Things went great!” and both men are resting and recovering at Upstate University Hospital.
Billy McConnell, Jr., of Brewerton, said if his cousin Ricky needs his garbage can moved from one side of the street to the other, he’ll buy a plane ticket to California to move it for him.
Sound extreme? Maybe. But in McConnell’s mind, it’s a small gesture compared to the gift Ricky Gamundi is about to give him.
At 38, McConnell – an athletic 13-year Air Force veteran and father of two young boys – is in kidney failure. Without a transplant, he will need to start regular dialysis at any moment.
When news of McConnell’s diagnosis last year spread through this tight-knit family, Gamundi, 34, quickly got tested to see if he could help. Turns out the two have the same blood type – O positive – and subsequent tissue samples matched. But the clock was ticking. McConnell’s health was deteriorating and Gamundi was about to become a father for the third time. His wife is due in February and he needed to be healthy for the birth.
A behind-the-scenes team of people – including many from the Upstate Transplant Program – have spent weeks making arrangements for the operation. The nearly 3,000 miles between Central New York and Monteray, California where Gamundi lives is challenging on a good day. But with COVID-19 cases spiking across the country, keeping both men and their families safe and healthy before the operation was going to be a priority and a challenge.
Billy’s parents, Bill and Ana McConnell, launched a GoFundMe page to pay for a private plane to transport Gamundi and his family from California to Syracuse. Bill McConnell is a retired Air Force and commercial airline pilot. Family friend Robert Hallahan secured a plane and would be the pilot, but two-round-trip flights on a private jet coast to coast would still cost about $40,000.
As of Jan. 4, the GoFundMe page had raised more than $46,000 and the family plans to donate a portion of that back to Upstate. The Gamundi family arrived safely in Syracuse on Dec. 27 and the two cousins have been inseparable ever since. They’ve been spending their time at pre-operative appointments, getting COVID tests and watching football, McConnell said. They will report to the hospital at 5:30 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 6 for the operation.
Gamundi told doctors to give his cousin his “best looking kidney,” and the two have requested to room together afterward. Gamundi is expected to be in the hospital for two or three days and McConnell for up to a week. The two joked that they would settle for bunk beds if necessary.
“With COVID and the fact that family is not able to be in the hospital with Billy and I, I would actually prefer to be in the hospital for as long as possible so we can keep each other company,” Gamundi said. “Typically when you come out of surgery you want to wake up to the people that you care about by your side.”
McConnell and Gamundi were raised in military families and grew up on opposite coasts of the country. They would see each other at family gatherings in south Florida a few times a year. The two men became close when Gamundi’s father and McConnell’s uncle lost his battle with esophageal cancer nine years ago. He was 50. Gamundi said he saw the toll that took on two younger siblings, ages 12 and 15 – and he wasn’t about to let that happen to his cousin’s children.
“The effects that I noticed on my little brother and little sister… not having their dad just really kind of solidified my decision that if there was anything I could ever do so that another family or a child doesn’t have to be without a parent, or parents don’t have to be without a son, I would do everything in my power to have that not be the case,” Gamundi said. “If I was deemed the best batch I would be honored to do that for him and his family. For me this was a no-brainer.”
McConnell said he’s excited and nervous about the transplant: “This is my first surgery of any kind so I’m kind of going big or going home,” he said laughing. The cousins have spent the last few days relaxing with their families, eating sushi – McConnell won’t be allowed to eat it once he receives the new organ – and planning a future trip to play golf at Pebble Beach. McConnell said he’s ready for an improved quality of life.
“I couldn’t be more fortunate with the way that it is happening with family being so instrumental in all of it,” McConnell said. “I’m just grateful and Upstate has been amazing in every way. I know this could have been a lot longer and a lot tougher process, like is usually the case for people in my situation so I just keep telling myself that I should be extremely happy for the opportunity that I have because it doesn’t come along for everyone.”
A milestone transplant took place on Dec. 13 when Upstate performed its 1,000th deceased donor kidney transplant. Doug Boos, of Norwich, had been on dialysis for six years before his name came to the top of the the transplant list. Boos thanked the family of the donor for giving him a new lease on lease on life and urged others to make their donation wishes known. Boos said he felt better instantly upon receiving his new kidney and plans to use his newfound energy to play more with his grandkids.
Caption: At left, Billy McConnell, Jr. and his cousin, Ricky Gamundi, have been spending a lot of time together before the transplant surgery scheduled for Jan. 6, 2021.