Bay Area man donates kidney to little boy

September 16, 2009 8:37:50 PM PDT
We often think of organ donation as something that happens after someone has lost their life. But a healthy family man gave up one of his kidneys to a boy he barely knew.

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Eleven-year-old Cole Combi likes to play with his new puppy. That seems simple enough, but for Cole, even this was impossible just seven months ago.

That's when he was on dialysis at Stanford Medical Center, with his one healthy kidney failing.

"At dialysis, when they take the blood out of you, it makes you really tired when you come home," Cole said.

Rob and Carla Combi are Cole's parents.

"The technical term was posterior urethral valves," Rob Combi said.

Cole was born with a serious condition that damaged his kidneys. So as soon as he reached 20 pounds, at age one, Cole had his first kidney transplant.

The donor was his mother. So for the next seven years, Cole lead a pretty normal life, doing most of the things young boys do.

But late last year, Cole's condition started to deteriorate and so began the Combis' frantic search for a new kidney for Cole -- one that became more urgent when family members were medically ruled out.

"That's when we really out to friends and said 'we've exhausted all avenues, in our circle here, we really need help if anyone would ever consider this,'" Carla Combi said.

The Combis send out more than 150 emails and more than 100 people were tested to see if they were a match for Cole.

Warren Heffelfinger, a 41-year-old husband and father of three young girls heard about the Combi's plea for help.

He was tested, even though doctors preferred a male under the age of 40.

"Got a call two or three weeks later that said, 'you're the match,'" Heffelfinger said.

At that point, Heffelfinger had to decide whether to give his kidney to Cole.

"The trigger point for my wife and I is we have three daughters. And damn, if this ever happened to one of my daughters, then I wish someone would do this for us," Heffelfinger said.

"I felt like I was the biggest testimony, here I was, I had done it. I had two more children and I live a perfectly healthy life," Carla Combi said.

And so, on March 23, 41-year-old warren and 10-year-old Cole exchanged a kidney at Stanford Medical Center. They met for the first time at the hospital.

As it happened, Heffelinger went in for surgery the day after saying goodbye to his childhood friend, John Hege, one of four Oakland police officers killed in the line of duty.

Hege's organs were donated to others in need.

"My friend John, who've I've known since I was six was shot and lost his life and gave all this life in the end, and what a truly heroic act that he did," Heffelfinger said.

Living with a new kidney can be tricky, especially for an active kid. That's why Cole takes regular trips from his home in Lafayette to see is doctor at Stanford.

The doctor's say so far, so good and today, Cole Combi's slowly getting back to being the active little boy he once was.

"I want to be back playing baseball and basketball, going on vacation and doing all that," Cole said.

Heffelfinger says there truly is a gift in giving.

"I think our family views this as a gift that's been given to us. I mean we feel really blessed and lucky to be able to do something like this," Heffelfinger said.

Now, Cole has a wish for another little boy he met in dialysis, named Pablo.

"He was there for a long time, so I think it would be nice to give a kidney to him," Cole said.

Information for people wishing to help Pablo:
Contact Jerri James
Lucille Packard Medical Center
650-498-4905

Related Links:
Cole Combi's website
Information about organ donation

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