The gift of life, times two
By MICHAEL SHUFRO / Towns Correspondent
Two years ago on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Thomas McGinnity and his wife Pamela were out Christmas shopping, when pain erupted in his neck. Wrapped around the curve of his spine, a malignant tumor had just shattered several vertebrae.
Less than a week earlier, McGinnity, 60, had undergone the medical examinations to become a kidney donor for his daughter, Jennifer Gasperoni, 31. All of his lab work yielded good results, except a chest x-ray that exposed an unusual spot his lung.
A few days later, doctors told him he had stage four lung cancer and less than six months to live.
While McGinnity’s tumor grew, his daughter’s kidney function dropped dangerously below 15 percent. Faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, hope looked dire for the Santa Rosa family, but then by an extraordinary turn of events, they overcame and survived.
“It was a total shock,” said Pamela McGinnity, 59. “Everything came crashing down in a single week. It felt never-ending and kept moving so fast, but we just kept hoping and praying. We never gave up.”
The August before her father’s diagnosis, Gasperoni went on peritoneal dialysis, a last resort treatment that temporarily sustains a person’s kidneys until an organ transplant is available.
A mother, wife and full-time employee, Gasperoni opted for the treatment at her doctor’s insistence. Used only by people with severe kidney disease, the dialysis requires nine hours every day to filter six liters of water and solution through the kidneys, flushing out toxins.
“We all told Jen we would be live donors for her,” McGinnity said. “To wait for a deceased donor can easily take seven years or more. I wanted to go first because of my age, and that I’m a match. It’s just bizarre that’s how they caught the cancer.”
While his daughter began her search for a new kidney donor, McGinnity quickly moved from Memorial Hospital’s ER to UCSF’s neurosurgery department. By December, a team of specialists had carefully assembled a plan for surgery under the guidance of Dr. Praveen Mummaneni, vice chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and co-director of UCSF’s Spine Center.
The surgeons performed an occipital cervical fusion, cutting open the back of the head and neck, inserting screws into the back of the skull and upper spine, and connecting them with steel rods.
“He initially came in with a very bad prognosis, and he really wanted to be home for Christmas,” Mummaneni said. “So while we could’ve been much more aggressive, our goal was just to stabilize the neck without taking out the tumor. And in the end, he made it through the holidays.”
But with Christmas came recovery, radiation treatments and chemotherapy, most of which McGinnity said are a blurred memory of strong painkillers and intense bouts of pain.
Then just as life appeared to have hit rock bottom, it sank deeper. During a session of radiation therapy at Redwood Regional Medical Group, a more intense eruption of pain surged through McGinnity’s neck. Screws pulled apart, steel broke from bone, and the tumor grew.
“At that point I pretty much figured it was over,” McGinnity said. “Everything was collapsing inside me. I remember I told Jennifer, ‘You need to get that transplant before I kick the bucket.’”
Just after New Year’s Day, McGinnity returned to Mummaneni’s care while Gasperoni prepared for her own surgery at UCSF. With a strong healthy pair of kidneys, Gasperoni’s older sister, Cheri Goley, stepped forward to act as a donor in place of her ailing father.
“Since my sister had up until the surgery to say no, there’s a ton of uncertainty to the very last minute,” Gasperoni said. “But my dad just kept telling me, ‘God has a plan, and we need to have faith in it, even if we don’t necessarily understand what that plan is. And I believed him.’”
With McGinnity’s life held by a quickly unraveling thread, Mummaneni knew the tumor needed immediate removal, which in turn would require a rare and advanced form of neurosurgery.
The operation, known as a transoral-transmandibular removal of a C2 tumor, is so rare UCSF is only one of three hospitals in the nation to have performed it. Mummaneni learned the approach from a physician in Germany. He said neurosurgeons won’t even attempt the surgery that can lead to bleeding and stroke, meningitis, spinal cord injury and quadriplegia.
In a two-part, 12-hour procedure, the surgeons split McGinnity’s jaw in half, and then his tongue, delicately pulling the lump of cancer up his throat and out through his mouth. Then Mummaneni rebuilt the broken cage holding his skull and spine together, and hoped for the best.
“When I reshaped the cage, I had to do quite a bit of carpentry to fit it in there,” Mummaneni said. “But the hardest part was carving the tumor out around the bottom of the brain.”
After weeks in the hospital, McGinnity returned home, but for months remained too weak for further treatment. He had lost all speech ability, and since his diagnosis had dropped 40 pounds.
“The whole weekend seemed to last forever,” Pamela said. “Our friends and family prayed a lot, we all prayed, for us and for the doctors. Even our pastor drove to the city to offer support.”
Then after months of despair, hope returned. By mid-April, McGinnity restarted chemotherapy and radiation treatment along with speech and swallow therapy.
At UCSF, his two daughters waved goodbye to each other in a hospital corridor before being wheeled away to prep for surgery. The transplant, which can lead to kidney failure or plain rejection, turned out to be a perfect match.
“Seeing the difference you can make as a donor has changed our whole family’s perspective,” McGinnity said. “Even a bone from a cadaver was used in my surgery. So whether it’s an organ or blood donation or just marking your driver’s license, I urge everyone to do what they can.”
For the next full year, McGinnity wore a big neck brace and leaned on a walking stick wherever he went. By August, oncologists told him no trace of cancer remained in his body.
While the surgeries have left him permanently disabled, a single scar on his chin is all that visually remains on his otherwise unblemished face.
“His voice sounds different, and he’s got a lot less movement in his neck, but he also doesn’t snore when he sleeps anymore,” Pamela said, with a hint of laughter and relief.
While the possibility remains for the lung cancer to return or the kidney to fail, today family members are overjoyed just to be alive and together.
“I’m still tired, but in a way I have no regrets,” McGinnity said, rubbing his neck. “It may sound strange, but I know I’m on borrowed time here, and for whatever reason, I’ve been given this gift of life.
“I just thank God for his guidance, and am extremely grateful for each and every day.”