SAN FRANCISCO — Mickey Giarratano never would have asked one of his children for a kidney. That’s not his nature, and Nino Giarratano knew it.
That’s why the son stepped in and made the decision for his ailing father, offering up one of his healthy kidneys so his 80-year-old dad could live a longer, more normal life.
Giarratano makes tough calls all the time as a college baseball coach at the University of San Francisco. When it involved putting his own life on the line, his wife and grown daughter initially couldn’t understand making such a sacrifice. Especially doing so for someone who already had lived a full life, even if it was his father. Still, it’s a something Giarratano would do all over again.
“If it didn’t work out health-wise for me, I could live with that,” Giarratano said. “It’s kind of that athletic mentality. … I’ve just been lucky to be around sports my whole life. I’ve been lucky with the decisions I’ve made to do what I do. I was healthy. So, I always knew if anyone could recover, I would be the quickest recovery in the family — based on age, based on my lifestyle. So it worked out pretty good.”
He is doing great relying on one kidney. Giarratano returned to running on the treadmill six weeks post-op to make sure he was “healthy for fall practice and ready to go” at the start of his 14th season at USF.
“I’m up to about 15 miles per week, and feeling great,” Giarratano, the reigning West Coast Conference coach of the year, said this week. “I am so lucky to have this opportunity to give back to my dad.”
The 49-year-old Giarratano decided he wanted to provide this gift not only to his father but also to his mother, Josephine, who had handled the bulk of the care for her ill husband. They had given up so much for Giarratano and his three older siblings along the way.
“I wasn’t surprised at all. That’s just the type of person he is,” said former USF outfielder Jonnie Knoble. “His dad had given him so much, he felt he owed it to him. Not a lot of kids would do that.”
While Giarratano didn’t know everything the donation would entail, he understood the transplant would improve his father’s life. At the time he made the decision a year ago, Mickey needed dialysis for five hours a day three times a week.
“We’re still kind of angry at him,” joked Giarratano’s wife, Brenda. “I’m kidding. We’re happy. We’re all doing much better now that everybody’s healthy. It was scary.”
Mickey Giarratano had gone in for what was expected to be a routine gallbladder surgery last year and ended up staying in the hospital for 45 days because of kidney failure. In October 2010, Giarratano first mentioned to his mother the idea of donating his kidney.
“It was a matter of two months, you take this man who has lived his life and all of a sudden it has changed considerably. It was different to see that,” Giarratano said. “That’s when I started stepping in. I just started thinking, if he needs my help, I’m the guy.”
Everything aligned to make it a go, starting with their matching blood types.
Giarratano began researching the entire procedure and process, educating himself on kidney disease and what his life might look like 30 years down the road with only one kidney. He learned that his lifestyle wouldn’t necessarily be altered at all. He went through a battery of tests to first make sure father and son were a match. Eventually it came time to discuss when they could actually make it happen, which was after the WCC champion Dons’ season finished in a loss to UCLA in the NCAA Regionals.
The exact day ended up being picked for them. The transplant center had a cancellation and an open date on July 11.
“There are steps along the way where you just kind of have your fingers crossed and say, ‘Boy, I hope it works, I hope I’m the person,’” said Giarratano, who soon will become USF’s all-time winningest baseball coach.
He stayed for about a week after the surgery at Denver’s Porter Adventist Hospital, while his father was in for three weeks before returning home to Pueblo, Colo.
“He’s the first 80-year-old man to have an organ transplant in Colorado at their facility. It was pretty neat,” Giarratano said. “In the beginning, he said, ‘I need a transplant.’ I said, Dad: ’80 years old, how are they going to accept that? I’m all for helping.’ He had to go through psychological testing, he had to go through all the physical testing — EKG stuff, the running tests to make sure he was healthy enough to sustain that. He passed all of that. Little by little, he tenaciously stayed up until they said, ‘OK, if you find a donor, you can do it.’ He knew going into that he had a donor.”
Paul Meyer, one of Giarratano’s close friends and a longtime USF supporter, has known the coach for 15 years and was moved to hear about the kidney donation.
“There’s no greater gesture of love than when you give a kidney to your 80-year-old father so he can live 10 more years and see his grandkids and great-grandkids,” Meyer said. “That’s the amazing part.”
Mickey had become discouraged during his dialysis sessions and began to fight the idea of it, considering the treatment controlled his schedule and affected his psyche and even his relationships.
Despite that, he told his wife he wasn’t going to ask a family member to donate.
“Low and behold, my son and my wife had talked about it before I knew about it. As many friends who have talked to me, they all say, ‘You have a wonderful son and there aren’t many people who do that,’” Mickey Giarratano said. “It doesn’t happen daily.”
Mickey Giarratano, now 81, has been healthy ever since. No setbacks. He could live 10 to 15 years longer with the new kidney.
He is so much improved that his doctor said, “Next time you talk to your son, tell him he gave you one hell of a kidney.”
“If he had gone on a donor list, he never would have gotten it. He never would have been high enough on the list. He wasn’t going to go ahead of 20-year-old kids. He wasn’t going to go ahead of people who were sick and needed it to live,” said Giarratano, who told his father of his plan last Christmas. “It was emotional. He was scared. He didn’t know how to react. I didn’t say much after that except, ‘It’s a done deal, I’m the guy.’”
Not a day goes by that his father isn’t appreciative of the strong bond this experience created between them.
“If it wasn’t for Nino, none of this would have happened,” said Mickey Giarratano, crying. “As my doctor in Denver said, ‘You tell Nino he was the man.’ And it’s true. I’m sure other people feel the same way when they get a donor.
“So, I appreciate it every day and every day I will pray for my son, Nino, that he turns out OK. He went through more than his dad did.”