Tissue transplant a hit for ballplayer's dream

Donation leads to a rebuilt knee and new friendships

By Russell Rian / Jan. 22-31, 2011

As was his nature, Thomas Pettit was happy to help. In December 2007, his neighbors in Sherman had brush that needed clearing, and Mr. Pettit had time to spare. That neighborly chore turned tragic when Mr. Pettit suffered a fatal fall. But even in death, the 44-year-old man would continue helping others by becoming a tissue donor.

“Thomas was a wonderful, wonderful husband, grandfather and father,” recalled his wife, Debi. “When the transplant people contacted me, I thought that is what he would have wanted. I contacted my sons, and they all agreed this is what they wanted their dad to do. I don’t have any second thoughts about it at all.”

Bloomsburg University infielder Joey Ianiero evades a sliding runner at second base – much the same play on which he was injured while playing at Rutgers. Mr. Ianiero received a transplanted ACL from UT Southwestern’s Transplant Services Center. (Photo courtesy of Bloomsburg University)

Joey Ianiero, then a baseball player at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is particularly thankful for the Pettits’ decision. Just weeks prior to Mr. Pettit’s death, Mr. Ianiero had blown out the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee when an opposing player slid into him at second base. The collision brought an abrupt halt to his dream of playing professionally. His doctor recommended a donor replacement tendon as the best chance to ever return to the baseball diamond.

Because of his surgeon’s efforts, Mr. Pettit’s tissue donation and his own determination, Mr. Ianiero has made a full recovery. He continued his career at Bloomsburg University, earning All-Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference honors in 2010 as a junior.

While it is often hearts, lungs, livers and kidneys that garner attention, there are even more people whose lives are equally transformed for the better thanks to tissue donations such as tendons, skin grafts and corneas.

“Donations cannot happen without the incredible gift that donor families give during such a difficult time in their lives,” noted Donna Drury, director of UT Southwestern’s Transplant Services Center, the tissue bank serving North Texas area hospitals.

Those who benefit sometimes never know the story behind their gift. But social networking has brought new opportunities. For the Pettits and Ianieros, the initial contact was cyberspace.

The Ianieros first reached out to Mrs. Pettit with a traditional thank-you letter by mail through the Transplant Services Center, which anonymously passes along such correspondence to donor families to decide whether they would like contact. Mrs. Pettit held on to the letter for several weeks, struggling to decide if and how to respond. The envelope was sitting on the microwave oven when her son, Brandon, found it.

“I looked Joey up on Facebook and I sent him a friend request without explaining who I was,” Brandon Pettit said. The next day, he got a return message.

“Joey said, ‘Sorry, but do I know you?’” he recalled. “That was how I wound up explaining who I was and how I knew him. Since then, it’s been pretty constant contact. He’d call after every game and tell me the score.”

Joey Ianiero (left) and Brandon Pettit meet face-to-face, as do their mothers, Debi Pettit and Pam Ianiero, during the recent transplant reunion. Mr. Ianiero has returned to the baseball field, playing for the Bloomsburg University Huskies after successful knee ligament replacement surgery using tissue from the late Thomas Pettit.

Mr. Pettit’s contribution was gratifying on other fronts as well, family members said.

“Thomas loved sports,” his wife recalled. “He was always helping kids’ baseball and softball teams. He was always playing golf. All his kids were in sports. And here there was this kid who could continue his sports career because of Thomas’ donation. It was all so natural.”

Brandon Pettit said Mr. Ianiero’s recovery provides his family with an emotional lift.

“Dad was an all-or-nothing guy. It was great that dad helped someone who didn’t take it for granted. It was overwhelming to see someone take advantage of that second chance they had.”

Over the course of weeks and months, the two young men became friends online but never met in person. Finally, in late 2010, they did in an emotional face-to-face introduction at the Transplant Services Center’s annual celebration.

“I just want to say ‘thank you’ for everything this did,” Mr. Ianiero said at the event. “It got me back to doing everything I wanted to do, and that’s playing baseball. It’s everything to me. And it’s definitely an eye-opener. Convincing one person makes a difference. It has for me, and it could for a lot of people.”