Living faith, living donor: Minister gets 'a new lease on life'

By Russell Rian / September 2010

After 25 years as a youth minister, Gene-o Parenica might expect to be tired. He often was busy wrangling dozens of kids at church functions, but his persistent weariness was suspiciously uncharacteristic for such a particularly energetic man.

“I would come home and sit on the couch, and just drop off the face of the Earth,” the 51-year-old recalled. “I’d just fall asleep. In the past, I’d always been someone who was very energetic.”

He eventually went to his doctor, who tweaked his blood pressure medication while they awaited results from a bevy of blood and other tests. An ominous call came within a few days while Mr. Parenica was out playing Frisbee golf with his own children. The results were in, and he needed to come in the next morning to discuss them.

Gene-o and Theresa Parenica

The uncovered problem — his kidneys were functioning at a startlingly low 13 percent capacity.

“Kidney failure and transplant was not something we were even considering,” Mr. Parenica said. “Basically, I began a new journey. We started doing research, and we learned the team at UT Southwestern was excellent.”

In the past year, approximately 650 people were referred to UT Southwestern’s surgical transplant program under the direction of Dr. Juan Arenas, chief of surgical transplantation.

Initially, Mr. Parenica’s diet was adjusted severely to see if his limited kidney function could be preserved. Even so, his organs’ efficiency continued to fluctuate from as low as 7 percent to just 15 percent. It was clear more would be needed, and he dreaded the next step — having to undergo blood-cleansing dialysis treatments three times a week.

Prayer gave Mr. Parenica the strength to carry on, he says, while living donor match testing began on his wife, Valerie, and other family members.

Dr. Arenas said kidney donations from living donors are a critical component to expand the pool of potential donors and shorten life-threatening delays.

“The shortage of organs to transplant remains the major stumbling block for the more than 100,000 people on waiting lists,” he said.

Transplanted organs from living donors tend to lead to better results compared with organs from deceased donors, according to data from the United Network for Organ Sharing, which operates the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

The five-year survival rate for living donor organ recipients is 80 percent, compared with 67 percent for those who receive organs from deceased donors.

Living donations account for about one-fifth of donated organs. Among living donations, roughly three out of every four procedures are with organs from a relative of the recipient.

Living donor kidneys do better in part because the donor can be tested thoroughly prior to transplantation, and the kidney is between bodies for less time.

Various volunteers from Mr. Parenica’s family, including his sister and his mother-in-law, proved to be mismatches. Behind the scenes, unbeknownst to him, his children were staging a backup plan.

Teen angel

“We all kind of discussed it and said, ‘Dad is not doing well and something’s got to change,’” recalled his daughter, Theresa, who was 19 at the time. “Originally he said, ‘I don’t want any of you kids to donate.’ But we decided that wasn’t good enough.”

His son was too young, so the duty — and privilege — fell to Theresa, who had been confirmed as a good match ahead of older sibling Alicia. Mr. Parenica hesitated, however, worried about his daughter’s future health and the potential for future kidney problems of her own.

But she wasn’t having it.

Warning Signs

Here are some of the symptoms of kidney failure:

♦ Changes in urination patterns, such as difficulty urinating or the need to urinate at night;

♦ Swelling in ankles, legs, hands or face;

♦ Feelings of fatigue, lack of energy, shortness of breath, or a lack of concentration;

♦ Feeling cold or pain in the leg(s) and/or lower back; and

♦ Nausea, vomiting and/or loss of appetite.

“Theresa said, ‘Won’t the same God that provides for you provide for me? Just as God has taken care of you, God will take care of me,’” Mr. Parenica recalled. “Don’t you hate it when your own kids use your words against you?”

Mr. Parenica and Theresa were rolled into separate UT Southwestern University Hospital — St. Paul operating rooms in June 2008, with the teen’s kidney removal performed by Dr. Dev Desai, associate professor of surgery, followed immediately by the father’s transplant, performed by Dr. Meelie DebRoy, assistant professor of surgery.

‘How is Dad?’

“With both being in the hospital, it was fairly nerve-wracking for all of us,” recalled Mrs. Parenica. “I was running back and forth to his room, then her room. It was the most exhausting day.

“When Theresa came out, her first question was, ‘How is Dad?’“

The next day when Mr. Parenica awoke, nurses wheeled Theresa in to see her dad.

“I kept that photo on my cell phone for the longest time,” recalled Mrs. Parenica. “It was like the greatest day ever, one of the best days of my life.”

Theresa was back on her feet and at work within two weeks and is now finishing her elementary education degree.

“People ask how it was,” she said. “I always answer, ‘If you know someone you can donate to, do it, because it was easy.’”

Mr. Parenica’s active ministry continues as well.

“The kidney has been a blessing. It’s like someone turned a light on. I felt so much energy was returning to my body,” he said. “I’m probably never going to be the Energizer Bunny again, but now I’m able to take care of things. God has blessed me with a new lease on life through my daughter.”