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Schoolyard friendship a lifesaver

Staten Island para donates kidney to another parent
New York Teacher

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Organ donor Noelle Tortora Guerriero (left), a para at IS 61 on Staten Island, s

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Mallori Walsh (left) and twins Abigail and Angelina Guerriero were pre-K friends
No one could have known that a chance meeting a decade ago in the schoolyard at PS 45 on Staten Island would one day save a life.

Noelle Tortora Guerriero, now a paraprofessional at IS 61 on Staten Island, was seeing her twins, Angelina and Abigail, off to pre-K. Dianna Walsh was doing the same with daughter Mallori.

“They mainly got friendly during the drop-off in the morning or waiting to pick them up after school,” said Mallori’s dad, Darin, adding that the moms “spoke often even if it was only through text or Facebook, and we’d run into each other” in the neighborhood. Over the years, Noelle said, “a bond formed that just never went away.”

And then this Aug. 16, nearly 10 years later, Noelle gave Darin a kidney.

“I don’t even have words for her,” said Dianna. “She’s an angel.”

Noelle, who works with District 75 students at IS 61, doesn’t understand the fuss. “I don’t think what I did is extraordinary,” she said. “I did the right thing.”

Trish Mezzacappa, a teacher and the longtime chapter leader at IS 61, taught one of the two Walsh children and three of Noelle’s five kids. “They are all-around great kids, and you know that only comes from home,” said Mezzacappa. “I’m so proud of Noelle for her generosity.”

“It was no big deal to her,” Darin Walsh said. But to him, it was life-changing. Darin had IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s disease, and his kidneys had lost their ability to filter wastes from his blood. “It’s a hereditary disease. My dad had it and he died at 46 of renal failure,” said Darin, who was in elementary school at the time. Now 43, the longshoreman said he’d been “slowly deteriorating” since his diagnosis in 2001. He began dialysis in November 2016 and was put on a transplant list.

“They told me three to five years based on my blood type, O positive, which is the longest wait,” Darin said.

Noelle learned about Darin’s medical needs via text messages with Dianna about an unrelated matter. She immediately asked what she could do. “My automatic reaction was, how can I help you?” she said. “There was no hesitation.”

Noelle, also O positive, got the name and number of Darin’s transplant coordinator and began the arduous process of applications, tests and questions.

When she learned she was a match, Noelle drove to the Walsh house, less than a mile away. “I rang the doorbell with tears in my eyes. I looked at Dianna and I just shook my head and said, ‘Yes, it’s happening, I’m a match.’ We just cried and hugged. It was such a great moment.”

After only three days in the hospital, Noelle stayed at the Walsh home. “Dianna set me up,” she said. “I was like the queen. She was so good to me.”

Darin came home two days later.

Noelle’s philosophy is that “everything is always orchestrated perfectly,” though you may not see it at the time. From how she became a para four years ago, which she calls a fluke, to how she became Darin’s donor, Noelle says everything that has happened in her life “happened exactly as it was supposed to.”

Noelle hopes her story inspires people to be “more willing and open to thinking about” organ donation. She said the decision was “a no-brainer” for her.

“I don’t live for the ‘what if’ scenario,” she said. “I live in the now. And right now somebody needed something that I could give to them. I am honored to have been able to help.”

Meanwhile, says Darin, “She didn’t just give the kidney to me, she gave it to my entire family. I’m in debt to her for life.”

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