December 12, 2018
The sun had just set a few blocks north of Oregon Avenue on a cold Tuesday in December.
Inside a rowhouse decorated with Christmas joy, Joey Weissinger sat at the kitchen table, his 5-year-old eyes focused on the YouTube videos playing on an iPad. His baby sister Aubrie got comfortable in her high chair a few feet away, her smile so wide the walls could barely contain it.
Their dad Joe – he sported an Eagles Super Bowl 52 Champions sweatshirt – was unloading bags from the car that his wife, Bridget, then drove around the corner to park overnight in the Sharswood School lot. Parking’s tight on their one-way, narrow block of South American Street, after all.
Despite the hectic nature of getting everybody settled after a long day, the scene was Rockwellian, albeit one inspired by modern-day South Philly life.
Then, without even a knock, a woman entered through the front door almost as if she owned the place, saying hello to everybody by name, making herself right at home.
“You can see that we’re just like family already,” Joe said, offering a harbinger of things to come.
If you didn’t know the backstory, you’d have thought everyone had known each other for years. In reality, though, members of the Weissinger family have known Mary Wagner Bracciale for just about three months.
There’s a very distinct reason for that comfort level.
Joe Weissinger had spent four years waiting for a new kidney and the opportunity to move off dialysis – and a year of actively searching for a donor on social media – when Bracciale parachuted, like a guardian angel, into the family's life from Conshohocken by way of East Falls.
On October 16, a surgeon with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital sliced open her side and removed one of her kidneys. The organ was then taken into a neighboring operating room where it was placed inside Weissinger.
The 43-year-old wasn’t on his death bed, but the membranous nephropathy had made it all but impossible to be the active person he wanted to be. The transplant was a surgery designed to give Weissinger a new life or, more accurately, get back to the life he once had as a Mummer, youth football coach, father and husband.
On this day – their eight-week anniversary of simultaneously going under the knife – the donor and recipient sat down next to one another on a living room couch to explain how kindness, compassion and happenstance congealed to form an unexpected friendship.
“This,” said Bracciale of the familial scene unfolding around her, “is why I did it.”
The kidney donor and recipient wouldn’t meet until the morning of surgery, but their paths started on a trajectory toward crossing decades ago.
Bracciale grew up in East Falls. Her best friend since first grade at the since-closed (and converted into lofts) St. Bridget School is a woman named Joanna Lippin Schultz. They’re still very close to this day.
As fate would have it, Joanna would work with Bridget Weissinger at Jefferson. As work friendships go, theirs was tight, too.
Joe’s path to needing a new kidney would start in 2009, when he noticed his feet were "awfully swollen.” A cardiologist referred him to a nephrologist, who diagnosed him with membranous nephropathy.
After several years of treatment, Weissinger’s kidneys stopped functioning properly. He was hospitalized with pneumonia in 2014. Dialysis became “the only way for me to survive,” although a transplant would obviously be a game-changer.
For three years, he kept the search private and was focused on deceased donors, rather than getting a living donation.
“I didn’t want to put anybody out of their way,” he said, explaining that it didn’t feel right to ask living people to give him an internal organ. It was a matter of personal pride.
"People told me they were personally getting tested, but I wasn't getting calls." – Joe Weissinger
As time went by and his body weakened, family and friends headed to Jefferson to see if they were a match. None would be.
"People told me they were personally getting tested, but I wasn't getting calls," he said. "The hospital couldn't tell me who was coming in because of HIPAA laws."
Weissinger also bided time on a transplant waitlist, something that resulted in several close calls.
On Halloween 2017, the Weissingers made a decision that would ultimately change their lives forever, and for the better.
They set up a “Kidney 4 Joe” Facebook page with a simple plea: please get tested to see if you’re a match, because a kidney donation would save his life. Also, please like and share this page so more people see it.
Bridget’s co-worker Joanna instantly shared it with her Facebook friends, telling them that it’s a legitimate cause and asking if they'd help a young father grow old with his family they could because “the match for Joe could be you.”
“Little did I know the match for Joe would be me!” Mary said.
From that day forward, Mary followed Joe’s progress and regress closely over that Facebook page. It had an effect on her.
She "liked" posts on it over the next several months – including those of the family heading out with the Riverfront Mummers N.Y.B. as Joey held a "My Dad Needs A Kidney" sign – knowing that she could potentially be a match since she was healthy and matched his blood type.
“I kept it in the back in of my mind, but I had a vacation planned, the holidays were coming, I was in the middle of a big project, and insert any of life’s distractions here," she said. "I kept thinking about it. I waited for my mind to be quiet and for the distractions to simmer down.
“I finally decided to call the Jefferson Transplant Center in late spring or early summer to ask how I could get the process started.”
The process started with a questionnaire and some basic testing.
“I didn’t read a whole lot about transplants in the beginning,” she said. “I didn’t tell anyone, including my husband, what I was thinking about doing. Looking back, I didn’t want anybody to talk me out of it. I also didn’t want to scare myself out of it.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” Joe quipped.
Dr. Pooja Singh, the medical director of Jefferson’s living donor program, which performs between 100 and 125 transplants annually, remembers Joe Weissinger from the first day he walked through their doors in 2014.
She said the process usually centers on family members or friends making donations, but said it’s a troubling misperception that donor and recipient must be related by blood. At Jefferson, the process is set up so anyone can come in and meet with program coordinators to get the ball rolling the same day.
Some do so with no donor in mind; many are there for a specific recipient, though. She said that social media campaigns like Weissinger’s have prompted many people to come in for testing in recent years.
She has two things to say about donors: they are truly heroes, and they “are allowed to change their mind at any time in the process.” (Yes, some have backed out very late in the process, and the recipient's insurance covers the cost of all testing.)
“We’re very tuned into when it works for the donor,” she said, noting that, in some cases, the whole process from questionnaire to surgery can take less than two weeks. “The surgery they’re undergoing is not for them, so we do everything we can to make life easier for them.”
That's the situation into which Bracciale walked.
Bracciale had an appointment set up at Jefferson for August 8, but still hadn’t told her husband, Jeff. They rented a weekly place for a quick summer trip in Stone Harbor a few weeks beforehand. That wouldn’t be the right time to spill.
“I wasn’t going to tell Jeff while we’re on vacation. What if he reacts poorly and it ruins the whole vacation, which wouldn’t happen, since he’s not that kind of person,” she said. “Then, I had a ‘girls weekend’ down the shore. I thought I’d tell him when I got home from that, but I got home Monday and was too tired.
“Tuesday, it was back to work. Thursday night was my niece’s birthday party, so I didn’t tell him anything that night other than ‘I have an appointment tomorrow morning at 9.’ In the morning, I went in the bedroom, kissed him goodbye and didn’t say anything.”
That afternoon, Jeff asked about the appointment – like good husbands do.
“Funny you should ask,” she recalled of that conversation. “I went to be evaluated to be a kidney donor. Then, I told him about Joe’s page. He said, ‘OK. It’s fine. It’s your kidney and you can do what you want with it.'”
"He said, ‘what you’re doing is a wonderful thing, I support you 100 percent and Joe’s kids are really cute.’” – Mary Wagner Bracciale, on her husband's reaction
On August 17, she learned she was a potential match and could proceed with the rest of the testing, which is a long drawn-out process involving renal ultrasounds, chest EKGs, CT scans and the like, along with meetings with dietitians, financial counselors and surgeons.
On September 24, she met with the surgeon who explained the procedure in depth for about 45 minutes before offering two dates: October 16 or November 6.
“You’re lucky I chose the early one,” Mary quipped to Joe.
With the surgery scheduled, Braciale headed home to tell her husband.
“He got really quiet, he clammed up on me,” she said. “I asked him, ‘What’s wrong?’ I don’t know if he gave an answer right away, but I told him ‘I can’t do this without your support.’ A couple days later, we sat down and chatted. He said, ‘what you’re doing is a wonderful thing, I support you 100 percent and Joe’s kids are really cute.’”
But that wasn't the end of awkward conversations. She still had to get time off from work in information-systems consulting, possibly up to a month. Still wanting to keep the plan somewhat secret, she didn’t instantly tell her boss what the surgery was about but he got so worried that she caved.
“I’m going to be fine. It’s for something good,” she recalled telling him. “When I told him that I’m donating my kidney to someone, he just started crying.”
She swore him to secrecy as she was “on hyperspeed, trying to get things done at work” in advance of both a work conference in Florida and, upon return, the surgery. She still wasn’t telling anybody out of fear that Joanna would find out and piece things together, thus telling Bridget that her friend was donating a kidney to her husband.
Meanwhile, Joe Weissinger had no idea any of this is going on. He was still doing at-home dialysis and hoping he’d regain the strength to play with his kids.
Then came September when the hospital called to ask about his availability in the coming weeks. A living donor had been found. A kidney was there for Joe.
"You're getting a kidney," he recalled being told. "Don't make any plans for that day."
Then, he took to the social media site which, still unknown to him at this point, had played a defining role in his story.
"The rumors are true. I HAVE A DONOR! Let me say that again, I HAVE A DONOR," he wrote in a Facebook post on October 1. "Man it feels so good to type that."
Surgery at Jefferson's Nicoletti Kidney Transplant Center was scheduled for October 16, but he still didn't know the identity of his donor.
Suffice it to say, that was a very important moment in Joe Weissinger’s life. It represented hope for a better future along with the mystery surrounding how it came to be.
Before he and Bridget could embark on a mission to learn the identity of his donor, Joe had some calls to make and loose ends to tie up.
“I was breaking up on the phone when they told me and then when I got on the phone with Bridget, we were crying together. I called my mom, told her. Then, I was upstairs by myself, thinking ‘What do I do now?’” recalled Joe, the youngest of six siblings. “Yeah, that was a good day, an emotional day. After I got her kidney, I get even more emotional.”
“It’s the estrogen,” added Mary, further bolstering their newfound, sibling-inspired verbal exchanges.
“Estrogen from your kidney and Dilaudid,” Joe added.
The Weissingers' attention quickly shifted to identifying his donor, a mission made a little easier after the hospital told Joe that “the person found you through the Facebook page,” but offered no additional details.
Complicating matters was the misguided impression that neither donor nor recipient wanted to reveal themselves to the other.
They're not sure why, other than miscommunication with the hospital that “made it feel like she didn’t want us to know,” said Joe, with Mary echoing that sentiment in a reverse way.
“I was stalking him constantly on that Facebook page to see if he posted anything." – Mary Wagner Bracciale
The silence would, of course, break, as these families were destined to meet and foster new friendships.
For her part, Mary continued keeping an eye on Joe’s Facebook page to see how he’d react to the news.
“I was stalking him constantly on that public page to see if he posted anything,” she said. “When I saw his (October 1) post, I almost died. Wow, this is awesome. He was so happy.”
So was Mary, who would come face to face with Joe – he didn't know – two days later when they were both at Jefferson for pre-op testing. She recognized him in the waiting room; he didn't know her face … yet.
“Oh my God, he was sitting right there. It took my breath away to see him, but I thought he didn’t want to see me until after surgery, if at all," she recalled, sitting next to him in his home all these weeks later. "I had to respect his privacy if this is supposed to be a truly anonymous situation, but, to see him, wow. Then I got to worrying, ‘What if we don’t meet afterwards for whatever reason?’”
It weighed on Joe as well, but the ice started to break when Mary followed through on her idea to send cards to Joe and Bridget in advance of surgery.
“I couldn’t find the Facebook post where I thought you’d had your address, so I Googled and found property records,” Mary shared. “I was in that store looking for cards so long that they probably thought I was shoplifting.”
There was a funny Get Well card, a serious one and then a third for Bridget, expressing how in awe Mary was of her strength to continue fighting for her husband’s well-being and how happy she was to donate so “you and Joe can grow old together, and he can play with the kids without getting tired.”
She’d sign those cards not by name, but as “Your Donor.”
“It was Columbus Day so the post office was closed,” Mary said. “I had to send them UPS on October 9. I wrote if they wanted to meet before, I’m totally up for that, but that I’d respect whatever they wanted to do.”
(As they shared their collective story, Mary then turned to Joe and said that he seemed like a funny guy, so she thought he would appreciate the humorous card she sent. He did, and still has all three in a manila envelope upstairs – keepsakes he’ll hold onto for the rest of his life.)
“We didn’t want to pressure you,” said Bridget, still in her Jefferson scrubs after work, from the kitchen. “We had to pump the brakes a little bit. But now, we’re all excited because of those little clues.”
Mary decided to further shatter that ice of uncertainty: she sent a private Facebook message revealing herself. On the Wednesday before surgery, they talked on the phone – which would be their most personal interaction before meeting face-to-face on transplant day.
“It turned into a ‘you hang up first, no you hang up first” date kind of thing,” Joe laughed. “We talked for an hour. It was neat. It was what I’d hoped for if I was lucky enough to talk to you.”
The night before surgery, Joe shared on his Facebook page a heartfelt letter that Mary had written from the transplant center. Among other things, it explained why she’d decided to do give up a part of her body to a stranger in need.
“I only began sharing my news very privately in the last few weeks, not because I wasn’t excited – I wanted to tell the world – but because I wanted to respect Joe’s privacy,” she wrote. “I knew from Joe’s posts that he had some close calls for transplant. I did not want him to find out about me too soon and then be disappointed if I was ruled out for some reason.”
Setting aside that she was almost ruled out the day before surgery because a liver specialist had concerns about some lab values, things went as smoothly as possible from there.
“Please send your prayers, love, and good karma to Joe, me and our families as we prepare for our big day tomorrow – kidney transplant day,” she closed the letter. “Joe – we’ll be in good hands tomorrow – in God’s hands.”
It would be a sleepless weekend and night before surgery for the donor, who waited for Joe to post her letter before sharing her secret.
After what seemed like the longest drive in history from South American Street to the Nicoletti Kidney Transplant Center near Eighth and Chestnut, Joe and Bridget were sitting in the waiting room when Mary walked in.
“I gave her a big hug. It felt like we knew each other forever. It was crazy. We were laughing the whole time.” – Joe Weissinger
To Joe, she “looked like a rock star” before heading into the back for surgery prep. Sure, they’d talked the night before, and had been texting and Facebook messaging, but that was the first face-to-face encounter. (In a loud, emotional scene, Mary had already told Joanna what was happening. She’d been the biggest threat of blowing the surprise in previous weeks since she was the connection between the two.)
Joe didn’t know that Mary had been worried that the test results would bring an end to the transplant before it happened. He’s happy he didn’t know, too.
“I gave her a big hug. I said it was the feeling like when you hug your big sister. It was a warm, overwhelming feeling,” he said. “It felt like we knew each other forever. It was crazy. We were laughing the whole time.”
“There were so many things I wanted to say,” shared Mary of that moment.
“She didn’t feel like a stranger,” Bridget added.
“You and Jeff are such good people, so that makes it easier,” Joe said to Mary.
Divided by merely a curtain, each was prepped for surgery.
Mary’s operation started at 7:15 a.m. Though you’d think it would be a complex procedure, the laparoscopic surgery was minimally invasive, leaving her with just a tiny scar where surgeons removed her kidney.
Joe’s would take a little longer, and involve a “hockey stick” type incision to give surgeons more access for transplanting the kidney.
Dr. Ashesh P. Shah, a transplant surgeon, handled Mary’s surgery, with another peer waiting in Joe’s operating room.
Social media, as in this case, has become a big player in matching potential donors with recipients because “stories like these often resonate with people” from afar, as opposed to social circles like churches or community groups in the past, said Shah, surgical director of the Kidney Transplant Program at Jefferson.
“Mary and Joe did have a connection before the transplant, so I don’t know if they fall into the category of completely unknown strangers. They may have been at the same place before and wouldn’t even know it,” he noted, during a phone interview this week.
“It’s always striking to me how brave and heroic donors are." – Dr. Ashesh P. Shah, surgical director, Kidney Transplant Program at Jefferson
With medical advances, it’s gotten substantially easier for those involved, particularly on the donor side, which doesn’t necessitate invasive surgery anymore.
“Mary has positive energy, so even if it got rough, she’d probably be smiling, but she bounced back so quickly that one day later, they were walking up the halls to hang out together,” he recalled. “The physical impact is not as dramatic as it used to be.”
He said he always tells people that these are the most difficult surgeries he conducts because “you’re operating on someone who doesn’t have anything wrong with them."
"The only potential problem is doing something wrong," he said. "Donors are particularly special to me, and it’s good that they’re getting more recognition because people used to be afraid to talk about it.”
Mary’s four-hour surgery – which involves a large team of hospital personnel who don’t often get the credit they deserve – was pretty straightforward and “she really did great,” he said.
“It’s always striking to me how brave and heroic donors are,” Shah said. “One or two days after surgery, Mary was walking around and laughing. She already gave a kidney and here she is now entertaining the rest of the hospital.”
Beyond the joy of helping a fellow human, Mary said she feels better and that the process helped her focus on losing weight, as she’d been trying to do for so long.
“I need to take really good care of myself now,” she said.
For Joe, dialysis is no longer a part of his daily regimen. Little Joey will remember those days, as the inquisitive youth asked all sorts of questions about the machine hooked up to his daddy so much of the time, but Aubrie will have to be told about these trying times.
This wasn’t exactly a life-or-death situation for Joe. As long as he stayed on dialysis, he’d have lived “quite a few more years.” But that regimen puts added stress on your heart, especially when you’re doing it for more than three hours a day, five days a week like Joe was.
Already, Joe said he’s feeling stronger, and he “can do more now.”
Recently, he and Joey were waylaid by street closures for the Philadelphia Marathon as they tried to ride a bus from South Philly to see “Matilda” at the Walnut Street Theater.
“The picture he posted of him and Joey that day, that’s it, that’s why I did it,” Mary said. “It makes me so happy."
Sure, Joe wasn’t yet strong enough to sprint across the street with his young son in between runners, but he was able to walk countless blocks after detours prompted the bus to drop them off nowhere near the theater.
“I’m almost back to normal, but I have to figure out what normal feels like again,” he said, noting that he’s been hospitalized once since surgery because of medication-related woes. “Not only do I have to take care of myself for my family, but I have to take care of what she gave to me. It would be horrible if anything happened.”
Joe has his life back. Bridget and the kids have their husband and father back. And Mary and Jeff have a new family of lifelong friends with whom they instantly meshed.
“It was an instant bond,” Joe said. “They’re really good people.”
Mary and Joe talked about what they consider to be the moral of their kidney transplant story. Both came back to bravery and the importance of swallowing one’s pride to ask for help.
“More people should think about being a living donor,” said Mary, who urged people to register to be a donor and learn about kidney donation specifically. “Don’t be afraid. But, if you are, at least have it on your license (that you’ll donate after death). I don’t even feel like I had surgery.
“I applaud Joe for becoming his own best advocate. It takes a lot of courage to ask for help, it is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
“If you’re in my situation," Joe said, before offering up some sausage and peppers that had been cooking all day, "know that there are good people out there and be willing to ask for help. For so many years, I didn’t even ask. Keep hope.
"It’s so easy to get into a negative mindset, to get depressed, to think of the worst," he added. "You gotta stay positive, and it helps to have really good people around you like I do.”
On New Year's Day, Joe will be out again with his Mummers troupe.
And Little Joey will be carrying a new sign: “My dad got his kidney.”