July/August 2019 Issue
June 27, 2019

One teacher's extraordinary gift

Author: Matt Smith
Source: NYSUT United
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Caption: Valhalla Teachers Association treasurer Sandro Prosperino, left, donated a kidney to New Jersey laborer Gino Spina, inset. Photos by Becky Miller.

Ask Sandro Prosperino ‘why,’ and his emotions rise to the surface, but an explanation does not.

The Valhalla Middle School special education teacher and boy’s varsity soccer coach donated a kidney April 29 to a New Jersey laborer he didn’t know.

Prosperino thinks. He talks about his Italian immigrant parents — his “heroes” — who demonstrated through actions, not words, the importance of “selflessness.” And he mentions that, perhaps, in some way, he was “passing along the same values” to his own children.

“I don’t know,” said the 49-year-old educator, who came to America with his family in 1972. “It just didn’t seem ... far-fetched or crazy.”

His wife would disagree. Prosperino acknowledged she struggled with the idea. His 13-year-old son also expressed worry and fear. Prosperino reassured them, the way a husband and father does, promising, “everything will be just fine.” But it was the words of his 11-year-old daughter in which he, himself, found assurance: “Dad,” she said, “you are doing a good thing.”

For information on how you can be a living donor, visit www.donatelife.net.

“Maybe this will get people talking, even beyond kidney donation, about being kinder, gentler,” Prosperino said. “It just seems we lost our way as a society. We seem so much harsher now. You go on social media and people are just hammering each other. Or something happens in the community and we’re just all over one another. Maybe this was my chance to do something in my little corner of the world.”

Prosperino, privately, was long considering organ donation. One day, he read that New York Mets legend Ed Kranepool was in need of a kidney. Through his wife, Prosperino had contacts within the Mets organization. Discussions advanced, physicians were involved and plans for a transplant were tentatively set. Then Kranepool found another donor.

Prosperino was undeterred.

“I’m not a religious person, but I’ve seen, sometimes, the way the universe intervenes. I thought, ‘whoever this new person is, they’re meant to get it.’”

Enter Gino Spina, a 47-year-old father of three who had been on dialysis four years.

“I was driving when they called me and told me there was a donor,” Spina said. “I had to pull over. I broke down in tears. He saved me. He’s my guardian angel.”

That Prosperino should donate his kidney to Spina seemed more than fitting. Not only is Spina also from Italy, he is from the same town as Prosperino’s parents: Calabria.

The two men — now friends who speak regularly — met the day after surgery.

“I walk into his room. I finally got to put a face to this,” Prosperino said. “Gino starts telling me his story. One heartbreak after another. Then he tries to find the words to express how he’s feeling, and I know he’s not going to find them. He starts crying. I start crying. And I turn around and the entire transplant team is crying.”

Spina and Prosperino both returned to work about a month after the transplant — weeks ahead of schedule.

“I missed the kids,” said Prosperino. “I guess you could say I need them as much as they need me.”

Valhalla Teachers Association President Steve Reich provided critical counsel and support leading up to, and after, the transplant, said Prosperino, who also serves as VTA treasurer.

“Whether it was my colleagues, or the administration, they were all a big part of this. I walked in to surgery in a very good place and I was able to recover so well because of their support.”

“This experience, it changed me,” Prosperino said. “I came out of surgery with one less organ. But I don’t feel like I gave anything that day. I feel more present, more in the moment. I see things clearer. I’m more patient. Less judgmental. I feel like I gained something that day.

“My only fear,” he said, “is it’s fleeting.”

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