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Andie Perona, part of the VUMC transplant team, receives double organ transplant

The transplant team surgical technician found herself on the other side of the table as a kidney and pancreas transplant recipient. It transformed her life.

by August 20, 2018

Andie Perona, a surgical technician with the transplant team, at her place of work. Photo by Susan Urmy

When Andie Perona picks up surgical instruments in the Vanderbilt University Medical Center operating room and hands them to the transplant surgeon, she does so with firsthand knowledge they are changing a patient’s life.

Perona, 37, a surgical technician on the VUMC Transplant Team, is not only a team member, she’s a double transplant recipient. The same team she scrubs in with on a weekly basis changed her life in 2014 when she received a new kidney and pancreas — and a second chance at life.

She was told she’d need a kidney transplant by the time she was 40. She used that information to plan her career in the medical field.

At 14 years old, Perona, a Goodlettsville native, was diagnosed with diabetes that would eventually damage her pancreas. And at 21 years old, she was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, an incurable condition that causes small cysts to slowly fill the kidney and eventually leads to kidney failure.

She was told she’d need a kidney transplant by the time she was 40.

She used that information to plan her career in the medical field.

“I wanted to learn more about polycystic kidney disease and how it could be treated. I knew I’d need a transplant, and I wanted to know how they would do this,” Perona said. “I was really intrigued, and I didn’t want to watch it on YouTube. I wanted to see it in real life.”

Transplant team members, L-R: Sandy Swint, surgical tech; David Shaffer, MD, chief of the Division of Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Surgery; Andie Perona; Jesse Wright MD, surgical resident; and Chris Fritts, RN. Photo by Susan Urmy

Perona graduated from Nashville State Community College in 2009 and landed a job at Vanderbilt as a surgical technician, first on the liver transplant team and then on the kidney transplant team. Though her kidney disease progressed, she got a lot of satisfaction in the fact that she was helping the transplant team change lives.

“It is very rewarding to see someone who is so sick, and to know you are really changing their life,” Perona said. “It’s almost instant gratification. You see them so sick and they wake up and can immediately feel the difference.”

By the age of 33, in April 2014, the polycystic kidney disease, as predicted, caused kidney failure and Perona was put on dialysis.

At night, her fiancé, Joshua, would help her connect to an abdominal port to undergo dialysis for nine hours as she slept. And then she would disconnect from the dialysis and go to work, where she’d assist in transplant surgeries.

Two days before her 34th birthday, she was informed that she was approved for a kidney and pancreas double transplant.

“I was just surviving at that point,” Perona said. “With kidney disease all the toxins build up and you are tired, irritable and you can’t eat. It is not only a physically challenging process when you are on dialysis, but mentally challenging as well.

“I was still working three days a week for 12 hours a day. That’s what got me through it. I kept seeing us helping people and knew there was hope.”

On Sept. 18, 2014, two days before her 34th birthday, she was informed that she was approved for a kidney and pancreas double transplant.

“I was at work and I was going crazy,” Perona said. “I ran in the room crying and I could barely get the news out. We all celebrated like it was a party — including my transplant surgeons.”

Life at that time was a blur of chaos and patience. Her fiancé Joshua had been tested to see if he could be a donor, but found out he couldn’t.

Perona said she decided to not let dialysis stop her from living her life. The couple had planned to wed in 2014, but postponed it due to all that was occurring.

“When I found he couldn’t [donate] I said, “Let’s go ahead and get married this year. I need something really good to happen,’” Perona said.

Joshua said this anxious time in life was a time where their faith played a huge role.

On the third day of their honeymoon, a call came from Vanderbilt. The honeymoon quickly turned from a romantic time of celebration to preparation for transplant surgery.

“The months leading up to our wedding and her transplant were pretty trying for us,” he said. “We knew we had to keep reminding ourselves that God would take care of it in his timeframe, and that things could have been worse. The dialysis treatment was a lot of work, but we found ways to find humor in the situation like calling the machine her “iPod charger.”

They wed in front of family and friends in an intimate ceremony in Hendersonville.

“Because I was on dialysis I couldn’t travel far so for our honeymoon we stayed in downtown Nashville and did touristy stuff that people who live in Nashville never do,” Perona said.

And then on the third day of their honeymoon, Oct. 8, 2014, a call came from Vanderbilt.

A honeymoon to remember

The couple was preparing to go to the Hermitage museum, when Perona noticed she had missed a phone call and listened to her voicemail.

“It was Mary Schaefer, my caseworker at Vanderbilt, and she said, ‘We have a donor for you,’” Perona said. “It takes your breath away. I was gasping for air. She said if you accept it we need you at the hospital at this time and don’t eat anything.”

The honeymoon quickly turned from a romantic time of celebration to preparation for transplant surgery.

Joshua and Andie went on their honeymoon, and then she got the call to come to the hospital for her transplant. Photo courtesy Andie Perona

After speaking with her family Perona accepted the kidney and pancreas, which came from a deceased donor.

She soon found herself on the opposite side of the operating table and in the hands of her transplant team members.

“I knew the process,” Perona said. “I knew every procedure and suture they would use. I knew my doctors. I knew my team members. I wasn’t nervous at all. I knew everyone. I told them I trusted them. I would never have had my transplant surgery anywhere else but Vanderbilt.”

Chris Fritz, RN, transplant team circulating nurse, said for years he watched Perona come to work suffering from her disease.

“She was strong. She was here every day. She never let her sickness get in the way,” Fritz said.

When he scrubbed in to be a part of Perona’s transplant team he said it was emotional yet overwhelmingly joyful.

“It was stressful; although transplant surgery is something we do daily, routinely, but for us it was personal, because it was one of our own,” Fritz said. “I was nervously joyful. We had been with her on this journey and then the day comes.

“And now seeing her well, the amount of vibrancy she has and her quality of life being better, it’s like she’s a different person.”

It wasn’t how Joshua and Andie thought they’d spend their honeymoon, but it was life-changing. “It was a very expensive honeymoon,” Perona said, laughing. “I’d do it all over again, no doubt about it.”

A new life

Following the six-hour surgery performed by David Schaffer, MD, kidney transplant surgeon, and Doug Hale, MD, pancreas transplant surgeon, Perona said her life changed immediately.

“It was an immediate gratification. I’d seen it 100 times in the operating room but when it was happening to me it was so amazing,” Perona said. “I had my color back. My skin was pinkish not gray. It was this feeling that is unimaginable and unbelievable. I could walk to the edge of the room and not be exhausted.”

Perona spent eight days in the hospital before being discharged.

Her new kidney and new pancreas allowed her to leave the days of insulin injections and dialysis in the past.

Despite worries of organ rejection, having a weakened immune system and new pill regimen, she said a month later she was back to her normal self, but with improved health.

Joshua said his wife’s transformation was amazing.

“The biggest takeaway from her journey was knowing that if we could survive that together, then we could take on anything,” he said. “There’s nothing like watching your loved one dying right in front of you to keep the petty issues and arguments in perspective.

“I personally go introduce myself and tell [patients and families] that I’ll be working with the doctor and to let them know I’m a recipient,” she said. “This peace comes over them like, ‘It works!’ I let them know it’s going to be OK.”

“The change of going back to being able to lead a normal life is still the most prevalent. Knowing that we can travel without having to load up everything for her dialysis, [can] go further than the Nashville area, and…being able to stay out later than 7:30 because she needed to get back to the machine are things we don’t take for granted anymore.”

Three months later, she was back in the OR again — back at her job, helping others get transplants.

“The feeling inside of me when I returned to work was amazing,” Perona said. “I was thinking how we help all these people every day and now I get to see these other patients go through this and I was so excited.”

With a new perspective as a double-organ transplant recipient, patient care became ever-more important to Perona.

“I personally go introduce myself and tell [patients and families] that I’ll be working with the doctor and to let them know I’m a recipient,” she said. “This peace comes over them like, ‘It works!’ I let them know it’s going to be OK.”

Perona attributes her successful transplant to the team she works with daily and an amazing support system in her family and friends.

“Every doctor, every nurse practitioner, the nursing staff, they all go above and beyond for everyone, not just for me, but for all their patients,” Perona said. “I like to reinforce the Vanderbilt way. We are a team. We all work together whether you are in the ER or OR. It takes a team to do what we do.”

Honoring her donor

Perona feels she has some unfinished business: honoring her anonymous donor. She doesn’t know the name of the deceased donor or his or her family.

While she has the option to write a letter, she has been lost for words.

“I tried to write it several times. I don’t know how to start it off,” she said. “I have so many penned rough drafts. I can’t seem to get it together.

“You think about your donor every day, because you are alive and doing well because of this person. I’m so thankful for my donor. Someone was gracious enough to sign their donor card or their family to make that decision to donate their organs.

“If you have a deceased donor you never meet them. You have something inside of you so precious,” she said. “You handle it like a billion-dollar diamond. I often rub on my tummy and call my organs my babies. People think I’m pregnant.”

Andie and Joshua Perona with their dog Chaos from last year’s Christmas card. Photo courtesy Andie Perona

Andie and Joshua Perona continue to celebrate life and enjoy the many blessings they have. They will be married four years in October. They have three Great Danes — Chaos, Sunny and Luna — and she enjoys walking them at the park. She is deeply thankful that she can walk her dogs without feeling exhausted, and, since she no longer has diabetes, can even enjoy an occasional ice cream cone.

Each year on her “transplant-aversary” she gives thank you cards to her co-workers, the transplant team that helped change her life.

She has also transformed her own family’s organ donor status; before her transplant, only one person in her family was an organ donor and now almost all her family members have signed up.

“You can be someone’s hero and not know you are. You have to think, ‘when I’m gone how can I change this world’ — and that’s how you can change it.”

To learn how to be an organ donor, go to

transplant, Andie Perona, surgery, Diabetes, Organ & Blood Donation