Ellen Maccarrone — “El” to friends — has had more than enough reasons over the past 33 years to celebrate receiving a kidney transplant that changed her life.
“I’m a grateful person,” she said. “There are the obvious reasons —our son, our grandchildren, so many good friends. There are so many others, like singing in the church choir, gardening ….”
On July 21, El, her husband Tino and their friends will have a gratitude party in University Place to celebrate her living half her life with a healthy kidney, a gift from a dying 32-year-old man who was an organ donor.
“I never knew who the donor was, never knew his family,” El said. “I wanted to try and find them the last few years, but I haven’t been able to do it.”
This year, she has a new donor to celebrate. His name is Caleb Shoop.
The 19-year-old grandson of two of the Maccarones closest friends, Harlan and Sue Shoop, Caleb was hit by a car in a Kenmore crosswalk last March.
“Caleb was pretty much gone on impact,” said his grandmother, Sue. “He knew early on he wanted to be an organ donor. He wanted it on his driver’s license. He told his parents.”
A few days after the accident — when two cars stopped at the crosswalk and a third did not — Caleb died at Harborview Medical Center. His liver, kidneys, heart valves and corneas went to waiting patients.
That night on Facebook, Caleb’s mother Tammy posted the passing of her son - and asked for prayers for those receiving transplants.
El, whose transplant was received in New York in 1981, has now changed her plans for her upcoming “Half-life party.”
Plagued by a genetic defect that disrupted kidney function, El had grown up constantly fighting illnesses. By age 30, she was on dialysis. Three years later, doctors put her on what was then called “the cadaver list” to await a new kidney.
“I was given a new lease on life and was never able to thank the family of my anonymous donor,” she said. “For 25 years, I was the poster child for organ transplant. My health was so good, it was like when Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ begins seeing in color after seeing only black and white.”
Since then, there have been problems, most caused by the drugs El was given early on in the transplant process.
“I’m sick a lot, dealing with infections again,” she said. “All those drugs eventually knocked down my immune system, so it’s a little hard to be happy”
The Maccarrone and Shoop families have been close since 1988. Harlan was the pastor at University Place Presbyterian, which the Maccarones attended. Even after Shoop moved to Trinity Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, the friendship flourished.
When Caleb was killed, the two families were drawn together in grief.
“They’re amazing people, wonderful role models,” El said of the Shoops. “It occurred to me, since I wasn’t going to be able to focus on my donor, I could shift my focus to Caleb and his family.
“I want to console people I love, show them this gift of life that I received and Caleb gave.”
Sue Shoop believes that might help make a difference for Caleb’s parents, Ben and Tammy, and his four younger siblings.
“El is part of our family, just a joy in our lives,” Sue said. “She’s had this organ so long. My daughter-in-law wants Caleb’s organs to outlive her, and El’s story is hope for that.”
There is a closure of sorts for El, too.
“I didn’t know my donor and his family. I never will,” she said. “However, I do personally know a young man who died and whose family agreed to have his organs donated. I do see up close and personal the consolation that Caleb’s and their generosity is bringing them now.
“Caleb let his loved ones know his choice. That’s what my donor did, too. Caleb knew what he wanted at 19. That’s magnificent.”
And worth celebrating.