“She’s More Than An Angel,” He Said. “I Can’t Even Describe What I Feel For Her And This Gift. She’s Given Me My Life Back.”

Lou Berardi of Greece, New York, still can’t believe his luck. Berardi, 69, had been living with end stage kidney failure around two years when last month, a kidney donated by a lifelong friend was finally transferred to his body. Sylvia Bianchi Nicholson, 68, answered more than a call for help — she saved a longtime friend.

“She’s More Than An Angel,” He Said. “I Can’t Even Describe What I Feel For Her And This Gift. She’s Given Me My Life Back.”

Now weeks after the life-changing surgery, Berardi said he’s on the mend. He’s still recovering — and isn’t permitted to lift more than 10 pounds at a time — but he said he is faring well and should soon be fully recuperated. While most people consider the donation a gift for Berardi, Nicholson considers it among the best experiences of her life. Unless someone is personally facing a significant medical issue that requires organ donation, they rarely think about becoming a living donor, Nicholson said. “Nor did I,” she said. “Having gone through this has opened my eyes and just wish live organ donation would become more popular.” “You get two kidneys and you only need one,” Nicholson said. “Why keep two if you can help someone?”

Life-saving Facebook post

Nicholson and Berardi knew one another for more than six decades. As children, the two were holy communion partners at St. Francis of Assisi Church and both attended Holy Family School and Bishop Kearney High School. “Then we lost touch, everybody got married, had kids,” Nicholson said. But the pair reconnected about a decade ago when they helped coordinate a grammar school reunion. About 15 or so of the former classmates, including Berardi and Nicholson, continued to gather several times annually. Last June, after several failed attempts at matching Berardi with a living donor, his daughter shared details about Berardi’s medical challenges on Facebook. In short, she asked friends, family and strangers to consider becoming a living donor. The post was shared more than 400 times.

Nicholson and her identical twin sister Cynthia Bianchi saw the post almost simultaneously. Knowing their blood type was compatible with Berardi’s, the duo knew either twin could potentially help. Nicholson called Kidney Transplant at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and started the donation match process. Tara Berardi Masci, in June 2019, posted in Facebook how her father, Louis Berardi, needed a kidney transplant. A childhood friend of Louis Berardi, Sylvia Nicholson, saw it and called the hospital to see if she was a match. She was and in November 2020 donated one of her kidneys to him. After numerous physical and psychological tests, Nicholson learned she and Berardi matched with a predicted 99% success rate, and she was approved to serve as her friend’s kidney donor. “I have an ace in the hole in that I have an identical twin sister,” Nicholson said. “God forbid I ever have anything that I need a kidney. She’s a perfect match. Period.”

‘I’ll be here when you’re ready’

Berardi, a diabetic for more than 30 years, said his kidneys failed several years ago and he’s been on kidney donor lists for four years. He was on dialysis for more than a year before the transfer surgery. Initially, he said, he underwent dialysis at home while he slept, but for the last few months before the surgery, he went to Unity St. Mary’s campus for four-hour sessions three times each week to receive the life-saving treatment. “Life is not the same,” on dialysis,” he said. “The machines keep you alive, and that’s all it does. When you get done, you’re so tired and so drained that you might be halfway decent the next day, but the following day you have to go back and do it all over again.” The pair’s transfer surgery was initially scheduled for March 2020, but was canceled due to the pandemic. A second attempt for the surgery also failed. Scheduled for June, the transfer was again delayed because Berardi needed open heart surgery and five bypasses — a major operation that took place in May. His doctor required he take a full six months to recover.

“No matter the hurdles we faced, she kept telling me, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be here when you’re ready,'” he said. The transfer surgery ultimately went forward on the third try on Nov. 10. Berardi spent a week in the hospital, while Nicholson only stayed for three days. “I’m more than a month out and I still don’t believe it,” he said. Every day he feels stronger. “Thank you is not enough to say how I feel.” Nicholson and Berardi both encouraged people to consider organ donation. “It’ll make your life more meaningful,” he said. “When you’re gone you’re gone. But your organs can still do so much.”

This news was originally published at USA Today.