Last October, Rancho Santa Fe Patrol Officer Sal Gambino was on a desperate search for a kidney donor for his 21-year-old son Vincent, who had recently entered stage five kidney failure. Happily, Vincent found his donor and successfully underwent transplant surgery on April 21 at Scripps Green La Jolla.
Vincent’s donor was his cousin, Stephanie Bartkowicz, 23, who made the decision to become a donor immediately after finding out she was a match.
“Honestly, I didn’t think twice about it,” Bartkowicz said.
For Vincent, it’s nearly impossible to put into words his gratitude for Stephanie’s sacrifice.
“It meant everything to me. It was a blessing, considering everything I went through and finding out that she was a match,” he said. “It meant the world to me. It’s a gift that I cannot repay.”
Before the transplant surgery, Vincent’s kidney function was at 9 percent. Without the transplant, he would need to start dialysis. Once Bartkowicz found out she was a match, she went through seven months of blood work and testing.
As the surgery date neared, Vincent was nervous but confident.
“I thought, ‘OK. I’m going to make it.’ To avoid dialysis was the ultimate goal,” he said.
The surgery was scheduled to be the first of the day at 7 a.m. and the pair were at the hospital at 5:30 a.m.
But because of an emergency liver transplant operation for another donor, they didn’t go into surgery until 1 p.m. It was a long, anxious wait, but finally Vincent and his cousin went into the operating room simultaneously for the two-hour procedure.
Bartkowicz’s recovery process went well and she was back to work in less than a week.
The impact of the transplant was immediate for Vincent.
“It was crazy — the day of surgery, his kidney filtration rate was at 8 percent and two days later, it was up past 60 percent,” Bartkowicz said.
Vincent said he was uncomfortable for about two weeks, but slowly his energy returned and he was able to get in some exercise.
“Before, my energy level was so low I relied on coffee to get me through the day,” Vincent said. “Now it’s like I have been given a whole new life. My energy level is better than ever.”
His kidney function is now at 69 percent and the Fallbrook resident is back at work for Chase Bank. He plans to attend Cal State San Marcos next semester, to study business administration.
Like his father Sal, Vincent is a member of the San Diego County Football Officials Association and North County Basketball Officials Association. Starting in October, he will get back to refereeing high school and youth basketball games.
He knows nothing could ever really repay Bartkowicz for her sacrifice, but he wants to take her out to dinner every April 21 for their “Kidney Anniversary,” and wants to give her a charm for her charm bracelet for every Christmas he gets to celebrate.
“There are a lot of people out there who need organs like I do, and there can be long waiting lists of three to five years,” Vincent said. “I know Stephanie feels honored to be able to give someone else life, essentially. It’s the biggest gift of life that anyone can give. The sacrifice is pretty amazing.”
Bartkowicz is in nursing school at Cal State Los Angeles with one year left until she graduates. She believes her experience as a donor will help her to have sympathy and empathy for her patients.
“For me to be so fortunate to be able to give someone that gift of 20, 30 or 40 more years of life, it’s like doing the impossible,” Bartkowicz said. “It is a big commitment. But in life, not many people get to do this. You only live once and you want to make the most of it. I would do it all over again.”