KENOSHA, Wis. — A kidney from a 14-year-old girl helped Frank Germinaro raise a family, pursue a career and live his life.
It was March of 1970 when Germinaro underwent the transplant at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin due to a childhood bladder ailment that caused his kidneys to fail as a teenager.
The kidney was donated by a girl who had died from a brain tumor. Most donated kidneys last about 10 years. This one would serve Germinaro — and in a real way make his life possible — for 47 years.
"It didn't start up right away," Germinaro told the USA Today Network-Wisconsin about the function of the kidney. "It took about two weeks for it to really start working well and once it started working, it just kept working. It's remarkable."
Germinaro, 69, of Kenosha, said he's thankful every day he wakes up, and the thought of the teenager who made his life possible is never far from his mind.
"Our family was happy that things worked out well, but at the same time you have to remember there's another family that's grieving, and in their grieving, they gave this beautiful gift," he said. "Every morning I'd say 'Thank you, another day.'"
Germinaro is among the millions of Americans who have been helped by an organ, eye or tissue transplant. But there more patients in need than available organs, a long-term trend that donor organizations and doctors are working to address. The gap isn't expected to go away anytime soon.
Nationwide, more than 116,500 people are in need of a transplant, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. On average, about 20 people die each day around the country awaiting a transplant.
Four decades with a transplanted organ is a long time. While each case is different and there are a lot of variables, kidneys typically last 10 or more years. It's not often one lasts for almost half a century.
"This is not very common at all," said Dr. Michael Zimmerman, a transplant surgeon at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin. "I'd like to see at least 10 years out of every kidney, but (even) that's not always possible."
Both Germinaro and Zimmerman attribute the long life of the kidney to Germinaro's attention to his health, medications and doctors instructions.
"Frank takes care of himself. He's compliant and watches his medications, his diet and does the right things," Zimmerman said. "Frank has put in the work. He didn't let anything slip over four decades — and it lasted that long."
In 2011, Germinaro met with two sisters and a cousin of the little girl who had given him his kidney. Up to that point, he knew little about his donor other than she was 14 and from Waukesha. The meeting came together with the help of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Jim Stingl, who searched newspaper archives with the little information he had and made the connection.
Her name was Rosemary Rolfson. At the lunch in Pewaukee, they talked about the time one sister snuck Rosemary's cat in a suitcase into the hospital to see her, and Germinaro talked about his gratitude.
"It was nothing but tears," Germinaro said. "Can you image, after 40 years, finding the person still alive that you gave your sister's kidney to?"
Following his 1970 transplant, Germinaro raised a family with four kids, completed college and a master's degree and became a music teacher and principal. He survived prostate cancer a decade ago.
"I paid taxes, had a mortgage," he said with a laugh. "It's a full life."
Germinaro said around the 20-year mark he began thinking about the probability he would need another kidney. That came to fruition in early 2016 when he was prepared for another transplant, using a kidney from his daughter Leanne, who lives near Wausau.
A second transplant at his age, for someone who didn't have a childhood transplant, is also rare, Zimmerman said.
A bout with shingles delayed the transplant for more than a year, but in April, the pair entered the operating room for a successful procedure.
"The first time I had a transplant, I was in the hospital about eight weeks because it was a slow starter," Germinaro said. "This one, I was up and walking four hours after the surgery. . I was out in four days and my daughter was out in three days."
Transplant programs at the three centers in the state — University of Wisconsin Health, Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center and Froedtert — are barely older than Zimmerman's first kidney transplant. Froedtert celebrated its 50th in November; others started around the same time.
Germinaro has calculated how old he'll be if his recent transplant lasts as long as the one he got in 1970.
"I'll be 117," he said, laughing, "and I'll be on my fifth generation of doctors."