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Special delivery — niece donates kidney as surprise gift

Austintown native to receive 2nd organ; niece to provide kidney

Austintown native Sam Maluso, 74, left, poses with his niece, Melissa Karman, 37, last month in Port Clinton. On Sept. 25, Karman will donate one of her kidneys to her uncle, who has been on dialysis for three years. (Submitted photo)

From 6 to 11 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Sam Maluso’s day is tied up with dialysis.

“It beats the crap out of me, to be honest,” the 74-year-old Austintown native said. “You’re just sitting there, but all the blood is taken out of your body, filtered and put back into your body. I go home, my wife fixes me lunch, and I take a nap.”

He had been a U.S. Postal Service operations manager overseeing 94 offices in northwest Ohio. His wife, Pam, 63, who grew up in Girard, was the postmaster of a small town post office. Now they want to go to Hilton Head, S.C., again, one of their favorite places. They’d love to travel to Italy again.

“We’re retired, we’re financially well off, and we can’t do anything,” Sam said. “I’m tied to this damn machine.”

He’s on a waiting list for a kidney from a deceased organ donor. His wife and all five of their children tested to be live organ donors. None matched.

Then came the phone call from Melissa Karman, 37, director of the Sutliff Museum in Warren.

“My niece has volunteered to give me a kidney,” Sam said. “She called me about a month ago. We’re an exact match. She said, ‘I want to give you one of my kidneys.’ I was in tears, that’s for sure.”

The donation is scheduled for Sept. 25 in Columbus.

CHRISTMAS GIFT

Last Christmas, the extended family gathered with Sam and Pam Maluso, now living in Maumee, outside of Toledo. Karman, 37, knew she wanted to do something for her uncle.

“I saw how he was with his kids growing up. He has several grandchildren who adore him, who want him to be here,” she said.

“I remember last year my parents went to Hawaii and my aunt was going, too. My uncle stayed with family in California so he could do dialysis, but he couldn’t go to Hawaii,” she said.

“(Before leaving the Christmas gathering) I asked my aunt my uncle’s blood type. She told me. I said I think I’m the same type. I pulled out my Red Cross card and saw that I was,” Karman said.

At the urging of her husband, Nick — “my rock and voice of reason” — she did her research to find out what was involved before committing to anything.

By the end of January, she was set up for blood work, urinalysis and other preliminary tests. Then COVID-19 concerns disrupted time schedules. It wasn’t until the end of June that she got word that everything was lining up so far. At the end of June, she went to The Ohio State University for daylong testing.

“It seriously is a day of testing. It was a very long day.”

“All throughout this time, I told nobody, only my husband. I didn’t want to get anybody’s hopes up, then have something fall through,” she said. “It was more of let’s see if it’s even possible and if it is, we’ll go from there.”

Finally, word came. She matched.

“Then it’s like, oh, this can and IS really happening,” Karman said.

The questions came again — are you sure?

“I had made up my mind long before that. As long as he needed it, I’m willing to do it.”

TRANSPLANTVETERAN

It will be the second organ transplant for Maluso.

Eighteen years ago, he underwent a liver transplant after a diagnosis of deficiency of alpha-1 antitrypsin, a protein made by the liver that protects the lungs.

Pam Maluso said, “In the 18 years since the liver transplant, he has seen our youngest son graduate high school, a daughter get married, and four grandchildren born.”

But, said, Sam, “When I had the transplant, I had problems with my kidneys. After some time, they kind of recovered. Finally, I had a problem in 2017 — I had a heart attack. They had to put me on a machine while they did the bypass, which effectively killed my kidneys.

“Since November 2017, I am on dialysis three days a week and hoping for a transplant.”

“After many health setbacks, Sam was accepted on the kidney transplant list for Ohio State,” Pam said. The wait list for a deceased donor is three to five years. That’s why their niece’s willingness to be a living donor brought them both to tears.

“Our children were not matches,” she said. “My niece, who is not a blood relative, is a match.

“Sam has been blessed to have this gift twice, once from a hero we never met, and now our hero Melissa Karman,” she said.

Being an organ donor is an awesome thing to do, she said. “It’s something that people need to be aware of.”

PREPARING TO BE A HERO

Melissa said that those who wish to become live organ donors do need to take several factors into consideration.

One is recovery time. She’ll be down for four to six weeks.

“I am struggling with that. I need to have the museum covered,” she said.

Then there are the routine household chores. She will be unable to handle simple things like doing laundry, buying groceries and driving their 7-year-old son, Henry, to school.

A person also has to be of excellent health. Doctors needed to be sure that her own kidneys were functioning well enough that she would do fine herself on one.

“They do all that testing. You learn everything about yourself that you didn’t know,” she said.

Throughout the whole process, including as the donor is being wheeled into the operating room, the donor has the right to back out.

She noted that plenty of organ donors just give because there is a need. They don’t know the person to whom they are giving an organ.

“A lot of people do nondirected donations. I applaud those people ,” she said. “I don’t know if I could do that. I can see my uncle.”

“I see him golfing. I see him in his den. He’s always watching some kind of sports” — especially The Ohio State University.

Pam Maluso observed that now her husband will be “a body divided.” His liver transplant was conducted Dec. 22, 2002, at the University of Michigan. The kidney transplant will be done at The Ohio State University.

In this case, the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry doesn’t matter to her. Sam is getting his life back.

bcole@tribtoday.com

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