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A sisterhood of friends

When Carol Arnold needed a kidney, her best friend Gail Martinetto stood ready.

By ROB BRANNON
Published June 25, 2003

TAMPA - Carol Arnold and Gail Martinetto do not share the same parents. But that doesn't stop them from referring to themselves as sisters.

The pair have spent virtually every day of the last 16 years together. They work together as nurses at St. Joseph's Hospital, taking care of newborns and their mothers. They go out dancing together with their husbands, and are completely integrated into one another's family. When one has a problem, she turns to the other.

With that kind of relationship, it was only natural last fall that moments after the 58-year old Arnold told her best friend that her kidney had to be replaced, Martinetto responded with unflinching determination.

"I just knew it, something told me. It was fate ... I told her I was going to give her my kidney," Martinetto said.

Arnold, a resident of Zephyrhills who moved to the area from Illinois in 1963, was touched by her friend's offer. But the odds against Martinetto being able to fulfill her promise were long. Organ compatibility among unrelated people is rare. But, Martinetto said, deep down she already knew what would soon be confirmed. Doctors were surprised to find Martinetto was the perfect donor.

"They said "Are you sure you two are not related?"' Arnold said.

"We're emotionally related," Martinetto replied. With that, the friends embarked on a months-long journey that culminated Friday when they joined one another in surgery at Tampa General Hospital's regional organ replacement center. Arnold's withering kidneys, functioning at just 8 percent of normal capacity, were replaced with one of Martinetto's in a four hour procedure.

Martinetto, a New Jersey native who has lived in Tampa for 28 years, said she entered the surgery with no doubts or fear of pain. "I was glad to feel bad," she said. On Monday, three days after their surgery, the women were joyfully continuing their recovery together. The pair sat facing one another in a TGH room, giggling and talking, all while wearing matching pink robes and pajamas given to them by their co-workers.

"They want us to be like twins,' Arnold said.

Both said they were feeling strong, and both were scheduled to be home by the end of the week.

Arnold, looking at her friend and smiling, took stock of all that had happened.

"It's a great gift, a gift from God. He put us together," she said. "I feel alive. She gave me my life back."

"She's fantastic, an angel from heaven," said Arnold's husband, Ken. "It sure made (Carol's) quality of life much better. It's given her life."

For Arnold, Friday's transplant was the culmination of an eight-year battle with kidney failure. The disease, Arnold said, runs in her family, though no one is completely sure why.

She remembers watching her mother suffer for 10 years on dialysis. That, she said, is the reason why Martinetto's compatibility was such a miracle. Doctors refused to use a kidney from family members because, genetically, the entire family is at risk to begin kidney atrophy.

Arnold, in the time leading up to the transplant, spent months enduring repeated surgeries.

Martinetto, at age 54, prepared her body in a different way. She changed her habits and lost weight. All the while she worried incessantly about her own health, even giving out a stern order.

"If anything happens to me, give my kidney to Carol," she told family and friends.

As it turns out, she saw to that herself. Even as her friend healed from the trauma of surgery, Martinetto said she already noticed the difference her kidney had made. She said Arnold's color was back to near normal, her voice stronger and her appearance much more healthy. Martinetto marveled at the good the surgery had done.

"It's a wonderful feeling to give part of yourself," she said. "It's like a whole second life."

Now that it's all over, would Martinetto go through with the process again?

Absolutely, she said.

"If (Carol) is not there, I don't want to be there," she said.

[Last modified June 25, 2003, 01:32:57]


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