Tony Antonelli’s doctor told him he had about five more years to live if he was lucky.
“It was only a matter of time,” said Antonelli, who has a family history of kidney disease.
Then, unexpectedly, Antonelli was offered an organ from an unlikely donor: his longtime handyman.
Dan Reynolds, 62, had done odd jobs and repairs for Antonelli and his wife, Mary, at their home in Gaithersburg for several years. Last October, Reynolds could tell something was wrong when Antonelli stepped outside to pay him after he mowed their front lawn.
“He wasn’t looking very good,” Reynolds recalled. “I asked him if he was all right.”
Antonelli explained his health concerns.
Reynolds asked him: “Well, what blood type are you?”
“A positive?” Antonelli replied, as if to ask a question.
“I’m also A positive,” Reynolds responded. “It would be an honor for me to give one of my kidneys to you.”
Antonelli froze. After several seconds, the only thing he could manage to utter was: “What?”
Reynolds assured him it was not an empty offer. He was serious.
“I understand how hard it is to match people up, and if it works, it works,” Reynolds told him.
Antonelli raced inside to get his wife, who was equally as stunned as her husband.
“I couldn’t believe it,” said Mary Antonelli, 68. “I was speechless. I burst into tears because it’s not anything you would ever expect.”
In 2017, she had donated a kidney to her husband. The surgery went well, she said, but after three years, the transplanted kidney started to scar, and her husband began to feel ill again.
“I lost my appetite, had no energy, and was slowly deteriorating,” said Antonelli, who is retired and used to work in technology sales.
His doctor confirmed what he had long been dreading: He would have to go on dialysis for the rest of his life, spending at least 12 hours a week hooked up to a machine.
The prognosis became even more grim when Antonelli didn’t react well to the treatment after a few months.
“He wasn’t doing great on dialysis. He got sick and had different issues,” Mary said.
Reynolds’s sudden proposal felt like an incredible offer for the couple. Although extensive testing still had to be conducted to confirm that Reynolds was a viable match, it was clear he was committed to trying.
“I’ve always been that way,” Reynolds said. “If somebody helps me, I’m going to help them.”
Reynolds, who spent 22 years in the Army as a combat engineer, has endured his share of hardships, including a difficult divorce and several years of homelessness. Without the compassion of others, he said, he wouldn’t have landed on his feet.
After retiring from the military in January 1999, Reynolds started his own business as a handyman. He made ends meet for a while, he said, but he eventually found himself in a financial bind.
“I had money, but just not enough,” said Reynolds, who slept in a friend’s delivery van for several years in D.C.
About five years ago, though, he, too, received an unexpected offer. He had just completed a job for a friend in Gaithersburg and was waiting to catch the bus back to D.C. when a stranger pulled up beside him.
“It was extremely cold and there was 12 inches of snow on the ground,” Reynolds said. “One of the people that lived in the area was coming out on the main road and asked me if I needed a ride to the Metro.”
He gratefully accepted the ride, during which the stranger discovered that Reynolds was a handyman, whose services he could use.
He hired Reynolds for some odd jobs, and eventually — upon learning that he was homeless — invited him to move into his basement, in exchange for his work around the house two days a week. Relieved, Reynolds settled into his new home, and started connecting with several regular customers in Gaithersburg, including the Antonellis. Finally, he was financially stable again.
Alongside six other families in the area, “the Antonellis kept me employed, and I wanted to pay them back,” Reynolds said. “If they’re going to step forward and give me work, I’m going to do what I can for them to make things easier. They’re such good people.”
Offering his kidney, he said, was his way of paying it forward. He promptly made appointments to undergo the necessary testing.
“Dan was the one who instigated every single step of the way,” Mary said. “He was still working and fitting in all these appointments between jobs.”
The process of donating a kidney is complicated, said Joseph Melancon, chief of the GW Transplant Institute at George Washington University Hospital.
“Mr. Reynolds went through over a month of testing,” he said, adding that when a donor is not a family member or close friend, “we put the patient through extra scrutiny where they are screened by psychiatrists to make sure they have a genuine altruistic desire.
“We make them jump through a lot of hoops, and Mr. Reynolds was always very willing to do anything we needed to do to make sure he would be a good match,” Melancon, Antonelli’s transplant surgeon, added. “He is truly an angel.”
Melancon said arrangements like this — in which the patient and the donor are not closely related — have increased in the past decade, and now comprise about 5 percent of the total live transplants performed in the United States. The transplant surgery, he estimated, should extend Antonelli’s life by at least 10 years.
What makes organ donors extraordinary, Melancon said, is that “you’re coming in and having a major procedure that’s not for your benefit, but for someone else’s. It’s a safe operation, but it’s still major surgery.”
When doctors confirmed that Reynolds was in perfect condition to donate his kidney to Antonelli, they scheduled the surgery for Feb. 23.
As the two men were wheeled into separate operating rooms, “I gave him a big thumbs-up,” Reynolds said.
The surgeries went seamlessly, and both Reynolds and Antonelli are recovering.
Antonelli — who has three children (all of whom, for various reasons, could not donate their kidneys) and 13 grandchildren — said he is eternally grateful.
Not only does Antonelli consider Reynolds a dear friend, “we are brothers now,” he said.
Even during his own recovery, Reynolds is focused on Antonelli’s well-being: “I’m going to be monitoring him to make sure he’s okay,” he said.
Because Reynolds is unable to work for several weeks while he heals, the Antonelli family set up a GoFundMe page to support him. Plus, as people in Gaithersburg heard about what Reynolds did for Antonelli, “I’ve gotten about 50 new clients,” he said.
He appreciates the support, he said, but the best part of the experience is giving Antonelli more time to live.
“I would do it again 100 times for him,” he said.
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