Leonard Petruska, 82, is taking time to reflect on the gift of life and the miracle of organ and tissue donation and transplantation as he celebrates 22 years since his life-saving liver transplant. Over the years, Leonard has also made it a priority to support donation and transplantation and by sharing his story with others, Leonard has encouraged more people to register as organ and tissue donors.
The following was written by Leonard to detail his liver transplant journey and highlight life’s precious moments made possible thanks to the gift of life.
In 1998, my life was great. I was the Eastern Regional Sales Manager for Nash Engineering, and my wife, Arlene, was a vice president of a large advertising company. We were proud that our three children, Alayne, Lenore, and Beth had graduated college and were gainfully employed. We were preparing to enjoy the upcoming Memorial Day weekend.
On the Thursday before the holiday weekend, while out doing errands, I suddenly felt sick to my stomach and was bringing up blood. I left my car at the store, got a ride home and rested instead of going to the hospital. Unbeknownst to me, my daughter Beth spoke with my doctor who called me and ordered me to the hospital. It was soon discovered that I had a bleed in my liver and my pancreas failed. I was put into a drug induced coma. Thirteen days later, I woke up in the CCU and was very confused.
Several months later, I was told to get my affairs in order because I had only about 12 months to live. I desperately needed a liver transplant and was added to the transplant waiting list. I attended transplant support groups to help me cope with a wide range of emotions, including a feeling of guilt that another person would have to die for me to receive the gift of life.
During the Memorial Day weekend in 2000, Thomas Sozzi, a local business owner and amateur drag race car driver, was on his way home from parking his business truck when he was hit head-on by a school bus filled with school children and was airlifted to the trauma center at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in critical condition. Thomas and his wife, Tracey, had a close friend who died awaiting a kidney transplant, so they were aware of the importance of donation. Tracey recalled Thomas saying if something ever happened to him, he would want his organs donated so others might live.
The following months were filled with recovery and rehabilitation. I was incredibly grateful for being given a second chance at life. Life took on a new meaning. I was more in love with my family and friends. Reading and music took on new importance. Everything about everything took on new dimensions and appreciation.
I felt compelled to write my donor family with the support of the NJ Sharing Network team. I remember that I wanted to make sure they received my letter just before Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving Day, Tracey called me and was happy to hear from me. We ended our conversation making plans for our families to meet the day after Christmas and we did – Arlene and I, our three daughters, and two grandchildren. We all remain in close contact and Thomas and his family will always be in our hearts and prayers.
A few years later, Tracey and I teamed up to do a volunteer presentation for NJ Sharing Network at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. She brought me to their trauma unit to do a little ‘show and tell’ for the staff so they could see me in person. Tracey showed them the miracle of organ donation and transplantation.
In all these years since my life-saving transplant, it is easy to forget my wait for this transplant until bedtime when I thank God and pray for Thomas and Tracey Sozzi, and their children Thomas, Nicole and Anthony.
Apart from general organ transplant protocol, I have led quite a normal life. I have seen my first daughter Alayne Morena raise Dan and Gabrielle as a single mom. I have seen Dan start a new company and marry Julie who is going to make me a great grandfather soon. Gabrielle became an NICU nurse and is in a relationship with Garrett. Another daughter Lenore prospered in large corporations spending several assignments in India. And to see my daughter Beth get married to Bob Pickell and raise Jack as well as twins, Cooper and Shane. And lastly, to spend more life with my love, my wife of 58 years, Arlene.
It was especially exciting for me to see Tracey get married to Michael Wilson and have a son, Michael. And every day, I remember that all these precious moments were made possible thanks to the gift of life.
(Left-to-Right) Arlene Petruska, Tracey Sozzi Wilson, and Leonard Petruska