The gift of lifeOct. 9, 2006

Ed Pesce and Dick Carnevale

Photo courtesy of Ed PesceEd Pesce, left,
and Dick Carnivale, right.

Classmates, roommates, best men at one another's weddings, fellow civil engineers and soldiers. With a friendship that has spanned almost three decades, Ed Pesce and Dick Carnevale, both Class of '79, would definitely be considered a compatible match. 

On July 18, 2006, their special compatibility was confirmed by two surgical teams at Massachusetts General Hospital, when Dick received a lifesaving kidney transplant, courtesy of his best friend. 

Polycystic Kidney Disease runs in the Carnevale family. Dick's father died of the disease.  His older brother had already received a transplant from a cadaver donor, and his younger sister will be facing the prospect of a transplant in the coming years. Even while students at Norwich, Ed and Dick knew that the likelihood of his needing a transplant in the future was almost a certainty. "We used to joke about it," Ed said. "I always told him, when you get around to needing a kidney, give me a call." 

They may have been joking at the time, but Ed's offer was not made in jest. As his friend's condition worsened, Ed learned all he could about being a donor and planned to participate in the New England Program for Kidney Exchange, a transplant option for patients with an incompatible living donor. This way, even if compatibility testing ruled out Ed as a possible donor for Dick, Ed's participation in the program would ensure that Dick moved up on the list once a compatible donor was found. As luck would have it, the rigorous medical screening process determined that Ed and Dick were indeed a compatible match, and the two friends began to prepare for surgery.    

Ed & Dick display their NU colors.

Photo courtesy of Ed Pesce Ed Pesce and Dick Carnivale display their NU colors.

In addition to the obvious physical risks associated with the surgery, Ed's decision to donate a kidney carried a financial risk as well. Being self-employed, Ed faced the possibility of over a month of recovery without a paycheck. In response, Dick and his co-workers put together a benefit dinner and evening of stand-up comedy. They set a goal of $15,000. In addition to family and friends, Class Agent Joe Santarelli rallied the class of 1979, arriving in large numbers and from far distances to support their classmates. The fundraiser exceeded all expectations, raising $45,000 to help cover Ed's medical costs and lost income.

Brigadier General Michael Kelley, Vice President for Student Life and Commandant of Cadets and NU Class of '74, was stationed with Dick and Ed early on in their military careers at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. All three men were engineers in different capacities as part of the medical service corps. General Kelley spoke of the special companionship between the two men. "The love they learned for each other at Norwich manifested itself decades later in this gift of life. It is the greatest example of the friendships and bonds formed here that I know of."

As remarkable as this story is, it is not the first case of one Norwich alumnus giving the gift of life to another. In March 2005, Pascal Holmes, Class of '98, donated a kidney to George Underhill, Class of '66. Pascal had been engaged to Underhill's daughter Josephine, Class of '96, while at Norwich, and while the relationship eventually ended, Pascal remained close with the Underhill family. George was the closest thing to a father that Pascal had, and the two kept in contact while Pascal was in flight training with the Navy. He served as a supportive mentor while Pascal went through the ups and downs of flight school. 

Complicated by diabetes, George's kidney function worsened over the years, necessitating dialysis. While his condition deteriorated, a concerned Pascal -- now an E-2C pilot -- kept in contact as much as possible during two deployments. It was after Pascal returned from his second deployment that he called George and offered him a kidney. George was blown away by the offer. "I said, that's ridiculous, you're a pilot!"

Despite some initial uncertainties concerning the future of his career as a naval aviator, Pascal assured George that he had checked things out with the medical personnel in Norfolk where he was stationed, and that organ donation was certainly possible. Once Pascal recovered, he would have to pass rigorous medical and physical training tests, but he could still fly with one kidney. Since George was categorized as a good candidate for transplant due to his strong heart, the two began preliminary testing. Although not an exact match, they were deemed compatible, and several months of preparation for surgery began.

With the support of his wife, a nurse, Pascal underwent nine hours of surgery to transfer his kidney to George. As is often the case with transplants, George recovered much more quickly than Pascal; however, within 90 days, Pascal was back in the air.   

George speaks proudly about his surrogate son and lifesaver. "The story isn't about me.  I didn't do anything. It's about Pascal. The more you know about him, the more you learn what a special guy he is in everything he's done and accomplished in his life." Pascal is equally glad that his gift was able to give his special friend and mentor a new lease on life. "George has wonderful grandkids, and before the transplant he couldn't visit them much -- he was tied to the dialysis. Now, he can travel and his life isn't restricted." And travel he does. George recently came to Norwich to attend his 40th class reunion during Homecoming weekend.

While many would classify Ed and Pascal's actions as heroic, Ed was quick to dispel that thought. "I'm no hero; I did what had to be done and did so gladly for my friend." And yet to Dick and George, whose lives were immeasurably changed through the generosity of their friends, they will always be heroes. All four men expressed gratitude and insisted that these long-term friendships were mutual. Both donors and recipients understood that their friends would have done the same for them had the situation been reversed. 

Although intimately familiar with the Norwich spirit, Ed and Dick were nonetheless shocked at the abundant support they received in the form of donations, gift baskets, cards, phone calls and letters. Perhaps most touching was correspondence from Amy Moore, widow of COL Jim Moore, Class of 1980, telling Ed how proud she was of him and how his actions were a testament to the strength of the Norwich family. In a letter addressed to the friends and family of Norwich University, Ed's wife Lori referenced that letter and passed along her own praise; "It seems the secret is out…all of you are kind, giving and very devoted friends and family, and not mere alumni…I know of the bond that Norwich men and women share, it isn’t just a college experience; you share the bond of strength, courage, and compassion."

For more information on the New England Program for Kidney Exchange, please visit www.nepke.org.