By Emily Fedor
Caroline Azzarelli has a set of markings on her left wrist that she gets a lot of questions about.
“Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Did a dog bite you?’ I used to be like, ‘Oh, I just cut myself,’ but now I’m at the point where I’m just like, ‘I need a kidney transplant. Do you know anyone?’”
For practically her entire life, 24-year-old Caroline Azzarelli has been facing a battle that could knock down the spirits of some of the strongest people. She faces her rough days, but somehow Caroline manages to stay positive—taking the cards she was given with grace and a laugh.
The daughter of Carolyn and James Azzarelli, Caroline had her right kidney removed when she was only six years old after it was damaged due to a case of reflux.
“You can totally live with one kidney, said Caroline. “You’ll be fine for the rest of your life and not have any issues. I pretty much lived my whole life not thinking there was anything wrong with me.”
Then in 2009, when Caroline was an 18-year-old high school senior, she began to lose her hair and was fatigued more often than not. That’s when her doctors discovered a nodule on her thyroid. She was sent for rounds of pre-op testing before having the nodule removed, but her test results revealed that her kidney function wasn’t on par.
From there, Caroline was sent to a Dr. Henry Yeager, M.D., a kidney specialist or nephrologist, who had to deliver some unexpected news to the Azzarellis: Caroline was in stage three of kidney disease. She was set to graduate from Holy Cross High School about a month later.
Caroline’s mother, Carolyn, admits that she and the rest of the family were devastated when they received the news.
“It was awful,” said Carolyn. “It was two weeks before the prom, and they were talking about renal failure and eventually needing dialysis and a transplant. They said ‘We don’t know how fast her kidney is failing, but it’s failing.’”
A healthy person with two kidneys starts with a GFR (glomerular filtration rate) of 100 percent—a sign of perfect kidney function. With one of her kidneys already removed, Caroline’s GFR could only be 50 percent at best. At this point in time, it was around 38 percent.
Caroline started out visiting Dr. Yeager once a year, then once every six months, and then once a month as her condition progressively took a turn for the worse.
In December of 2012, Caroline was a senior at Misericordia University, pursuing studies in social work, when she found out she had reached the fourth stage of the disease Then a few months later in May of 2013, she progressed to stage five. (The GFR of stage five patients is between zero and 15 percent.)
Today, Caroline’s GFR is about 7 percent, and as of July 22, she has been undergoing dialysis, which her mother refers to as “a bump in the road of life,” for one year. She goes to three-hour appointments three days a week at the DaVita Moses Taylor Hospital Renal Unit in Scranton, where she’s the youngest patient and is affectionately known by her nurses as “the kid.” Additionally, Caroline has been on a transplant list since March of 2014—patiently but eagerly waiting for a new kidney.
“Every day, you just wake up and pray that today’s the day”, said Caroline’s mother. “We cry together, We laugh together, We joke together and try to make the best of it, but it’s not easy.”
But even with all the trials she faces, Caroline never thinks about giving up—instead she chooses to stay positive and keep pushing herself . And recently, she’s taken a another step in the right direction in the form of public speaking to help teach others about the importance of being an organ donor.
When Caroline was attending high school at Holy Cross, she was a member of the Pennsylvania Association of Student Councils and at one point served as treasurer of the district council.
In March of this year, Edrene Wright, PASC District 9 Director, was in the midst of planning an event concerning organ donation for members of the PASC. She remembered reading an article about Caroline that appeared in the Scranton Times back in September and contacted her to see if she would be willing to speak at the event.
Caroline immediately accepted and ended up speaking to over 700 people—sharing her story and emphasizing how important it is for people to be organ donors. Now she frequently is part of a panel of speakers who discuss organ donation through the Gift of Life.
“I think this is something that people need to realize is not just happening to their grandparents,” said Caroline. “It’s happening to a lot of younger people these days. Kidney disease is something very serious, and you should be an organ donor to save lives like me. Education is something that needs to happen.”
And on top of all that, Caroline is employed at Tressler Law LLC in Scranton and Best Buy in Dickson City.
She finds inspiration in her family and friends as well as the nurses and the staff at her dialysis unit at Moses Taylor, which is unfortunately closing near the end of this year.
“We’re very proud of her,” said Caroline’s mother. “She’s doing an amazing job with the job she’s been given.”
Caroline says that her support system is “beyond words” and that without them, she doesn’t know what she’d do. But at the end of the day, there’s one other thing that really motivates her to keep moving, and that’s her lust for life—her desire to live.
“One thing for me is that I have to keep reminding myself, ‘What is the alternative?’ If it’s not this, it’s death, and I really don’t want to do that. I’m 24. I still have a whole life to life.”