Brothers Joe and John Gergela are celebrating life in a big way this year.
Joe Gergela, 57, the longtime executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau in Calverton, became a grandfather this summer. His brother John Gergela, 47, and his wife, Debora, had their first child six months ago.
But John did more than bring a new life into the world; he also decided to save a life by donating a kidney to his older brother.
Over breakfast at Papa Nick’s in Riverhead this week, the Gergela brothers recalled how they arrived at the plan for their kidney transplant operations.
Joe Gergela has struggled with juvenile diabetes for as long as he can remember and said he first learned he had it at age 7.
He remembers a spring day when he was standing near his school bus stop on Tuthill Lane in Jamesport. All of a sudden, he passed out on the side of the road. After a doctor visited him at home, it was determined he was diabetic.
“I’ve been insulin-dependent since then — for 50 years,” Joe said.
Despite his diabetes, he continued working on the family farm with his four siblings. In 1987, after bad weather had devastated the potato industry and local farmers lost $3 loss for every 100 pounds of potatoes, the Gergelas called it quits.
“[My father] was encouraging my brothers to do something else,” Joe said. “Work hard all year and lose money doesn’t make much sense.”
Since leaving the potato farm behind, Joe Gergela has worked as executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau. For over 30 years, he has worked on the policy side of the farming industry.
Around the time of organization’s 2010 awards dinner, Joe suffered a heart attack. He spent more than a week at Peconic Bay Medical Center and was then transferred to Winthrop-University Hospital for bypass surgery. During that surgery, his kidneys failed. His doctor recommended he get on the kidney transplant list as soon as possible because there’s a seven-year waiting list.
Until this summer, he has gone on living without
knowing his fate. He’s continued to work and said he’s grateful the farm bureau has been supportive and understanding of his situation over the years.
Then one Sunday morning this past July, Joe and his wife of 35 years, Donna, stopped by John’s in Middle Island to visit their new niece.
The brothers were out in the shop behind John’s house when the conversation turned life-altering: John offered his kidney to Joe.
“I couldn’t see him wait,” a teary-eyed John Gergela recalled. “He could have been on that list forever. I had to come through for him. The sooner it happens, the better for him.”
Asked if he remembered how he felt when John made the offer, Joe Gergela’s eyes welled up, his face tightened and he couldn’t speak. A moment later, he said the word “crying” and then fought tears to explain how grateful he was.
“We always took care of each other,” Joe said. “We’re always there for each other.”
John Gergela said he and Debora had talked about Joe’s situation and she supports his decision -— because, she said, she would do the same if someone in her family needed her kidney.
In the midst of planning for the surgery, John has been working around-the-clock. His company, North Shore Generator Systems of Medford, has been busy bringing power back to the tri-state area in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
“There’s a huge volume of people that still need power,” John said. “I’m spread very thin but, at the end of the day, this is more important.”
The brothers are scheduled to undergo surgery today, Thursday, at 8:30 a.m. at Mount Sinai Hospital. John Gergela said his surgery will take four to six hours. Joe’s procedure is expected to take twice as long.
“This guy right here is saving my life,” Joe said, his arm around his brother. “He’s giving me life back.”