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Faith, hope and organ donation: Kidney brothers inspire each other

Rev. Colenzo Hubbard (left) and Lee Giovannetti have been friends for nearly 25 years. “Colenzo has a big heart,” said Becky Wilson, who has known both men for years. “So does Lee.” Their story, she said, is “the epitome of loving your neighbor as yourself.” (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)
Rev. Colenzo Hubbard (left) and Lee Giovannetti have been friends for nearly 25 years. “Colenzo has a big heart,” said Becky Wilson, who has known both men for years. “So does Lee.” Their story, she said, is “the epitome of loving your neighbor as yourself.” (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

The Friday before his kidney transplant last month, Rev. Colenzo Hubbard had breakfast at Brother Juniper’s with his good friend, Lee Giovannetti.

The two, friends for nearly 25 years, make an unlikely pair.

Hubbard, 66, a Black Episcopal priest from Alabama, has spent most of his adult life ministering to the poor.

Giovannetti, 65, a white Catholic financial consultant from Memphis, has spent most of his adult life advising the wealthy.

“Colenzo, tell me what’s going on in your mind,” Giovannetti said after they both ordered veggie omelettes and grits.

“I’m just doing a lot of praying,” Hubbard said.

“I know you’re praying. What are you thinking?” Giovannetti pressed.

“I’m thinking that Monday will be my 545th and last dialysis treatment, if the transplant works,” Hubbard said.

“That’s great,” Giovannetti said. “I know you’re tired.”

Diabetes and high blood pressure had been delivering one-two punches to Hubbard’s kidneys for years.

When his kidneys finally failed in 2017, he went on dialysis, a burdensome treatment that removed waste from his blood three times a week for four hours at a stretch and left him exhausted.

“Dialysis is a really terrible way to have to live, but it does keep you alive,” said Dr. Lynn Ebaugh, Hubbard’s nephrologist since 2011. “Of course, there can be complications.”

In 2018, Hubbard nearly bled to death in his sleep when the dialysis port in his arm ruptured.

“God woke me up in the middle of the night,” Hubbard said.

In the ambulance on the way to the hospital, he suffered a heart attack.

The next year, a foot infection forced surgeons to remove one of Hubbard’s toes.

Earlier this year, he tested positive for COVID-19, even though he’d been fully vaccinated.

“I knew he loved me, but I didn’t know he loved me that much. Lee and I might not have compatible blood types, but we are brothers forever,” Rev. Colenzo Hubbard says of his friend Lee Giovannetti. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)
“I knew he loved me, but I didn’t know he loved me that much. Lee and I might not have compatible blood types, but we are brothers forever,” Rev. Colenzo Hubbard says of his friend Lee Giovannetti. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

“I’ve gotten dialysis treatments three times a week for almost four years,” Hubbard told Giovannetti as they sipped coffee. “I’ve seen a lot of people come to the clinic and not come back. I hoped they’d gotten a transplant, but I know most of them didn’t. Some couldn’t afford to come back. Most just didn’t make it.”

An average of 12 Americans die every day waiting for a kidney transplant.

Kidney disease is even more dire for Black Americans, who are four times more likely to suffer kidney failure and be on dialysis.

They also are less likely to get on the waitlist for a new kidney, and to receive a transplant.

One of the reasons is a complicated medical algorithm that uses race as a factor in evaluating all stages of kidney disease, dialysis and transplantation, according to a  opens in a new window2021 study by the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“There are so many inequities in kidney disease that stem from broader structural racism,” Dr. Deidra Crews, a nephrologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Equity, told Kaiser Health News in June.

Because of his ongoing health problems, Hubbard had twice been removed from the long waiting list for a kidney transplant. Twice this year his scheduled transplant had been canceled. Hubbard wasn’t strong enough yet.

“It cost $8,000 for each of my treatments, and that’s not including the meds, the doctor appointments, the trips to the ER,” Hubbard told Giovannetti at breakfast.

“So I’ve been thinking. I’m thankful for good insurance, but somebody has paid $5 million to keep me alive the past four years. And now they’ll be able to spend $5 million to keep someone else alive long enough for them to get a new kidney.”

Giovannetti smiled and shook his head. Just like Hubbard to think about how he could save someone else.

Giovannetti wished he could be as faithful and as selfless as Hubbard.

“Colenzo has a big heart,” said Becky Wilson, who has known both men for years. “So does Lee. What happened doesn’t surprise me. It’s such a Memphis story, the epitome of loving your neighbor as yourself.”

‘God with us’

Hubbard and Giovannetti met after a luncheon hosted by the Christian Community Foundation in the late 1990s.

Hubbard was one of a dozen leaders of faith-based nonprofit organizations looking for support. He spoke.

“I had five minutes to make my pitch,” said Hubbard, who came to Memphis with his wife, Debra, in 1989 to start a new ministry in the middle of two housing projects in South Memphis. “I just told them what was on my heart.”

When Lee Giovannetti came out of the recovery room after donating a kidney, “This feeling of such peace came over me. It was an inner peace I hadn’t felt in my 65 years.” (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)
When Lee Giovannetti came out of the recovery room after donating a kidney, “This feeling of such peace came over me. It was an inner peace I hadn’t felt in my 65 years.” (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

Giovannetti was one of about three dozen business leaders invited to attend the luncheon. He listened.

“Colenzo captured me,” said Giovannetti, who left E.F. Hutton in 1990 to help start a new investment consulting business. “What he said and how he said it grabbed me by the heart.”

It didn’t let go.

Giovannetti began investing his time and money into Hubbard’s ministry, the Emmanuel Episcopal Center. Emmanuel is a Greek word that means “God with us.”

Over the decades, the “God with us” center offered Bible clubs, field trips, summer camps, sports, after-school tutoring, job training and scholarships to thousands of children who lived in Cleaborn and Foote Homes.

One of those children was Torlisa Jeffrey, who went on to graduate from Wellesley and Dartmouth, and now lives and works in Singapore.

“I never could have realized the life and opportunities that I have today without the Hubbards having thought it was possible first,” Jeffrey said. “Father Hubbard has and continues to be a mentor, spiritual counselor and advocate for me.”

Giovannetti grew up, lived and worked in another part of town, but Hubbard also became his mentor, counselor and advocate.

“My office Downtown was about a mile away from the Emmanuel Center,” Giovannetti said, “but my life and world were thousands of miles away from what was going on there. Colenzo opened my eyes and my heart.”

As Giovannetti and his family got more involved in what was going on there, the two men and two families got closer.

“That was the whole point of the luncheon,” said Dr. Larry Lloyd, founder of the  opens in a new windowChristian Community Foundation. He organized the luncheon with Kemmons Wilson Jr. “Not just to give money to these nonprofit organizations, but to engage, to get involved and let it change your life.”

It changed both families’ lives.

Hubbard officiated at the weddings of Giovannetti’s son and daughter. When Giovannetti and his wife, Jane, renewed their own wedding vows on their 25th anniversary, Hubbard presided.

When Hubbard’s first wife, Debra, died suddenly of a blood clot in 2006, Giovannetti was there to comfort and mourn.

“He’s always been there for me,” Hubbard said.

When Giovannetti and a company he helped co-found, Counseling Services Group, encountered a series of disastrous financial and legal problems in 2009, Hubbard came to his friend’s defense publicly and privately.

“He didn’t have to do that,” Giovannetti said. “He stood up for me. I’ll never forget that.”

‘Why not me?’

Hubbard’s health continued to deteriorate after his heart attack in 2018.

The average life expectancy for a person on dialysis is five to 10 years, but it can be longer or shorter depending on the person’s overall health.

“Colenzo is such a big, gentle Teddy Bear, but he has faced everything head on,” Dr. Ebaugh said. “He’s a man of God. He never loses hope. He never lets anything defeat him.”

Hubbard knows how to take a hit. He played inside linebacker for three of Bear Bryant’s Alabama SEC championship teams in the mid-1970s.

“I came out of poverty, and Coach Bryant gave me an opportunity,” Hubbard said. “He taught me not to quit and every day was an opportunity to get better.”

Hubbard’s teammates called him Rock, but he’d already given his life to another Rock.

After he graduated from Alabama, the son, grandson and great-grandson of African Methodist Episcopal ministers traded his shoulder pads for a clergy collar.

He was ordained in 1986 and got a job at a church in Fairfield, Alabama, where he worked with Rev. John Ebaugh. Thirty years later, Ebaugh’s daughter, Lynn, became Hubbard’s nephrologist.

I believe my life is in God’s hands and God puts people in your path for a reason.

“I believe my life is in God’s hands,” Hubbard said, “and God puts people in your path for a reason.”

Giovannetti admires Hubbard’s steadfast faith, but he admits it can be a bit exasperating.

“Colenzo was always saying, ‘Well, I’ll get on the kidney waiting list or I won’t, it’s in God’s hands,’ ” Giovannetti said. “And I buy that, but I also believe God may expect us to do a little work on our own, too.”

When Giovannetti learned that Hubbard needed a kidney, he started doing a little work.

He read everything he could find about kidneys, kidney disease, dialysis and transplants.

He also consulted Dr. Santiago Vera, a fellow church member and a retired transplant surgeon at the  opens in a new windowJames D. Eason Transplant Institute at Methodist University Hospital.

Giovannetti learned that most of us are born with two kidneys, but we only need one to clean our blood, help regulate our blood pressure and maintain our health.

He learned that when kidneys fail, they generally fail together, and when they do, there are only two options: dialysis or transplant.

He learned that Memphis has one of the nation’s leading transplant centers and surgeons, Dr. James Eason, who performed Steve Jobs’ liver transplant in 2009.

He learned that only half of dialysis patients survive more than three years, and the average wait for a kidney transplant is three to five years.

He also learned that kidneys from living donors last years longer than those from deceased donors.

And that Hubbard could get a transplant much sooner if a living donor was willing to give him a kidney.

Giovannetti talked to his wife about it. “Somebody needs to do something,” Giovannetti told her. “Why not me? I’ve got two kidneys and I’ll do just fine with one.”

‘Brothers forever’

Giovannetti wanted to give one of his kidneys to his friend Hubbard.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Before he could be accepted as a living donor, Giovannetti had to undergo a series of thorough medical and psychological examinations.

First, he had to answer a series of difficult questions.

Why was he doing this? Why was he giving his kidney to someone who wasn’t a member of his family? What if someone in his own family needed a kidney one day? How would he feel?

“They put you through the wringer, and for good reasons,” Giovannetti said. “Looking back, I understand it, but it really felt disrespectful at the time.”

Next, he had to pass a complete medical history and exam. Giovannetti had survived a brain tumor 20 years before and an irregular heartbeat several years before.

“They turned me down,” Giovannetti said. “They said I wasn’t a good candidate to be a living donor. I told them I wasn’t giving up.”

Giovannetti got his primary care doctor, his cardiologist and his neurosurgeon to write letters saying he was healthy enough mentally and physically to donate a kidney.

Late last year, Giovannetti was approved. He could donate his kidney to his friend. Now it was time to tell Hubbard.

They met for coffee. Giovannetti asked Hubbard where he was on the transplant list.

“I told him I didn’t really know, but that no one in my immediate family was a match, so it might be a while, but I wasn’t worried. My life is in God’s hands,” Hubbard said.

“Lee looked at me and said, ‘Colenzo, I’ve been praying about it, and I’d like to be your donor.’ Well, that just blew me away. I didn’t know what to say. I just didn’t know. What do you say to someone who wants to sacrifice a part of himself to save your life?”

Hubbard talked to his wife, LaVerne. They met at an Episcopal church conference in 2007.

“She’s been beside me through it all,” Hubbard said. “We prayed about it and agreed to let Lee do it, but given my history, I really didn’t think I’d ever qualify for a transplant. I told him he could change his mind anytime.”

Giovannetti was determined. Donating his kidney to Hubbard was more than an act of friendship. It was an act of faith and obedience to God. He went through another round of medical exams that included blood tests. One day earlier this year, the transplant center called Giovannetti with more bad news.

“They told me I couldn’t give my kidney to Colenzo. Our blood types were incompatible for a transplant,” Giovannetti said.

Giovannetti was heartbroken. Hubbard was resigned. “I thought it was over,” he said.

It wasn’t.

Giovannetti found out there was another way he could help his friend get a kidney: A paired kidney exchange.

Giovannetti could donate his kidney to another person who needed one and who was more immunologically compatible.

That would allow Hubbard to get a kidney from another willing living donor.

The  opens in a new windowNational Kidney Registry would help them both find a match.

In 2013, former county commissioner Steve Mulroy donated one of his kidneys to the registry, triggering an exchange that allowed 28 people to receive kidney transplants over a six-month period.

Mulroy, a Catholic, said he was inspired, in part, by Rev. Val Handwerker, a local Catholic priest who donated one of his kidneys to a parishioner in 2011.

“People are suffering on dialysis and in some cases dying every year because of the lack of kidneys,” Mulroy said. “All it takes to alleviate that suffering is a few days in the hospital, and a few weeks of recovery.”

Hubbard and Giovannetti talked about it. Hubbard was worried. Giovannetti was healthy and surgery was always a risk.

Giovannetti was hesitant for another reason.

“At first, I wasn’t too keen on the idea of giving my kidney to a total stranger,” he said. “But the more I learned and prayed about it, I realized it was actually an even better deal. I can give my kidney to someone else who’s in just as bad a situation as Colenzo, and then Colenzo can get a kidney from someone else like me. It’s two for one.”

Actually, it turned out to be five for one.

Giovannetti’s donation triggered a transplant chain that helped five patients receive new kidneys, including Hubbard.

On Tuesday morning, July 13, at Methodist University Hospital, a surgeon removed Giovannetti’s right kidney, put it in an iced-down cardboard box equipped with a GPS device, and shipped it to another transplant center somewhere else.

Early that afternoon, another surgeon transplanted into Hubbard’s lower abdomen a healthy donated kidney that had been delivered in an iced-down cardboard box equipped with a GPS device from another transplant center somewhere else.

When Giovannetti came out of the recovery room, his wife gave him the good news. Hubbard had a new kidney and it was working.

“This feeling of such peace came over me,” Giovannetti said. “It was an inner peace I hadn’t felt in my 65 years. I’ve known people like Colenzo, and like my friend, Judge Tim Dwyer, who started the drug court here, two men who spend their lives saving others. I’ve always wanted to know how that feels, to live one day in their shoes. I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to find out.”

When Hubbard came out of recovery, LaVerne Hubbard gave him the good news. He had a new kidney, it was working, and Giovannetti was fine.

“It’s a blessing from God but it’s humbling,” Hubbard said. “I kept wanting to tell Lee not to do it, even when he was giving his kidney to me. Because of my love for him, I didn’t want to put his life at risk. Then he gave his kidney to someone he’ll never know so I could get a kidney. I knew he loved me, but I didn’t know he loved me that much. Lee and I might not have compatible blood types, but we are brothers forever.”

This story first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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