The gift of a lifetime

Julie Tomasin talks about the joy she felt when she heard that

Gilroy
– Once strangers, Julie Tomasin and Mark Elliott now share a
bond that shines with graciousness.
When Tomasin, 49, needed a new kidney, Elliott offered to donate
one of his
– without ever having met Tomasin.
Gilroy – Once strangers, Julie Tomasin and Mark Elliott now share a bond that shines with graciousness.

When Tomasin, 49, needed a new kidney, Elliott offered to donate one of his – without ever having met Tomasin.

Thanks to Elliott, this year Tomasin will drive from her home near Santa Rosa to spend Christmas at her parents’ home in Gilroy, something she simply couldn’t muster the energy to do just one year ago.

For the past decade, Tomasin suffered from kidney failure due to complications with her third pregnancy. Slowly, over the course of the years, the condition stole her vitality and joy of life until the only viable option was a transplant. Luckily, Tomasin’s brother and father shared the same blood type, and both were willing to donate.

Testing began in 2002 with Tomasin’s father. But after only a few months, doctors discovered a problem with his bladder that ultimately escalated into bladder cancer. Tomasin’s brother went in for testing next and delivered positive results. Encouraged, doctors set a tentative date for surgery in anticipation that the final tests would come back within the normal range.

But at 7am on a Monday, Tomasin received a call from the transplant coordinator at the hospital telling her the results were not completely satisfactory. The surgery had to be canceled.

“I was in an absolute state of shock,” Tomasin said. “I just couldn’t believe it. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to catch my breath and figure out what we’re going to do next.’ “

Forced to forge ahead despite physical and emotional exhaustion, Tomasin began seeking out other possible donors, leaving notes in last year’s Christmas cards and e-mailing friends, asking if they knew anyone who might want to donate.

By that point, Tomasin, an embryologist, had stopped working and had hired someone to help with housework. Day by day, her symptoms worsened. She had no appetite, felt extremely fatigued and experienced intense swelling in her hands and feet. An already slim 5-foot 5-inches, Tomasin lost about 20 pounds.

“I had a certain number of good hours in a day, and once I used those hours, I was pretty much useless,” she said. “Basically, your body feels poisoned. It’s a horrible feeling.”

One day, Tomasin received a phone call from her sister-in-law, Dina Fiori, who was friends with Elliott. Fiori had told Elliott about Tomasin’s condition, and soon after, Elliott went to the local blood bank and got tested. He told the Fioris he’d like donate a kidney to Tomasin, granted the test results came back normal.

They did, and for the next six months, Elliott, 46, made several trips to the University of San Francisco for further testing, taking considerable time away from his job at Della Maggiore Tile in San Jose.

From the very first test through the surgery, Elliott, a quiet, modest Gilroy resident, had his mind made up: Donating a kidney to Tomasin was something he felt called to do.

“I knew I wanted to do it,” he said. “It didn’t seem like a very big sacrifice to help someone else. If I had another (kidney), I’d do it again.”

Elliott’s wife and two daughters, however, needed a bit more convincing, fearing something terribly wrong would happen during the surgery. One of Elliott’s daughters, 12 at the time, lost 15 pounds while Elliott underwent all of the testing.

If a doubt ever lingered in Elliott’s mind, a scene he witnessed while at the hospital for an EKG test eased him once and for all.

A young woman was sitting in the waiting room with her mother, awaiting testing to donate a kidney to her sister, who already had received a kidney from the mother a few years ago. Seeing the family’s love and loyalty to each other touched him, Elliott said.

“If I had any worries, after seeing that, I was fine with it,” he said.

Tomasin and Elliott’s first face-to-face meeting was in March at their pre-operation appointment. Although Tomasin had no physical description of her donor, she said she recognized him almost immediately from his calm, unassuming demeanor.

“We were in the lab getting our lab work done, and I just looked at him and said, ‘Are you Mark?’ ” Tomasin said. “It was one of those things.”

Just as Elliott’s tests were coming to an end, one result came back inconclusive. The nurse called Tomasin and Elliott that evening and told them they needed to return for more tests.

“I was exasperated,” Tomasin said. “Mark was so calm. He just put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘It’s OK. I’ll be here. Don’t worry.’ “

The two returned to the hospital and took the required tests, and finally, after months of uncertainty, the doctors gave the final OK the night before the surgery.

Immediately after the operation, Tomasin suffered a small heart attack. Once she recovered, the doctors told her over and over again how lucky she was to be alive.

With renewed energy, health and quality of life, Tomasin said it wasn’t until after the surgery that she began to fully comprehend how sick she was and what a selfless thing Elliott had done. She said her life now is vastly, wonderfully different from just one year ago, and she credits Elliott with saving her life and her family’s well being.

“I spent last Thanksgiving on my sister-in-law’s couch. This year I cooked dinner for the family,” she said. “When you can make comparisons like that, it’s amazing. I have my ups and downs, but it’s the little things that happen slowly that make the difference.”

For months following her surgery, Tomasin contemplated how she possibly could repay Elliott. Eventually, she said, she realized the only way to express her gratitude was to help someone else in need.

After recently meeting Father Walt, a new pastor at Tomasin’s church near Santa Rosa, Tomasin discovered he also needed a kidney transplant. Because the pastor’s doctors told him to shed a few pounds before pursuing the operation, Tomasin and a group of mothers at the church have committed to helping him get in shape. Father Walt now attends Weight Watchers meetings and exercises alongside his team of support.

Although Elliott shies away from being hailed as a hero, he said he hopes his story inspires others to give of themselves. If his donation spurs even one person to do the same, Elliott said, it was all worth it.

Donating an organ

1. Request a donor card at DMV or print one out online at www.ctdn.org.

2. Sign and carry your donor card in your purse or wallet.

3. Put a pink Lifedot on your California driver’s license.

4. Tell your family.

• According to the California Transplant Donor Network, “living donations,” such as a kidney donation, are usually initiated by the patient and fulfilled by family members or friends. For more information, go to www.ctdn.org.

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