There was a huge birthday party yesterday afternoon at Toll Gate High School.
One-by-one, people of all ages poured into the Warwick school’s upper gymnasium to wish Assistant Principal Candace Caluori a “happy first birthday” and also to participate in a blood in the educator’s honor drive.
A year ago yesterday, Jan. 30, 2012, Caluori had a successful kidney transplant that enabled the highly-popular administrator to end five years of constant suffering and gave the 46-year-old, who students like senior Mailque Woods say is “awesome,” a new lease on life.
For six hours yesterday, statements like that one from Woods echoed through Titan territory for a woman who lost her father at age 47 because of kidney failure.
In fact, polycystic kidney disease, as Caluori’s mother Cynthia, a retired nurse who spent 33 years at Our Lady of Fatima Hospital yesterday explained, “is genetic and runs through our family.”
Candace’s brother also has it and he’s just 49 years old.
“I had one kidney removed when I was 8 years old,” Candace said while accepting a host of hugs, kisses and well-wishes from admirers who came to give blood in her name. “My other kidney then grew to be humungous. I was sick, really sick. But I kept coming to school; this is my family, it was my salvation!”
After a while, her remaining diseased kidney became unbearable and she began looking for a donor.
As an example of just how much Candace is loved and respected at Toll Gate, 15 people took the ambitious and difficult test to see if they were a match.
Then one day, Joanne Pettigrew, who met Candace when her son Chris Pettigrew was a student and continued talking with her during athletic contests that her other son Matt Pettigrew participated in, came to see the assistant principal and quickly said, “Get the transplant coordinator on the telephone.”
Candace said she quickly yelled, “What? It’s not like you get $5 and give it back you know!”
Needless to say, Candace, who managed to hide her ongoing and intensifying illness, was ecstatic.
Pettigrew, 48, then got tested and found out she and Candace were a match.
“Joanne wanted it done quickly,” Candace said of the kidney transplant. “She was finished testing right after Christmas and booked the surgery for Jan. 30. The transplant was set to be done at Rhode Island Hospital.”
Pettigrew went first to the operating room; then it was Candace’s turn for surgery, which took four hours.
“The first thing I asked when I woke up,” Candace said yesterday, adding the first person she saw when she opened her eyes was her mother, “Did it work?”
To which Cynthia said during an emotion-pitched moment, “Yes it did!”
While Candace was obviously thrilled, she wasn’t out of the woods just yet.
“Eight weeks later I went back to the hospital and had the kidney taken out,” she said yesterday with a smile as wide as the spacious gymnasium while getting another hug and kiss from her friend Ann Hourahan who works at the Warwick Area Career and Technical Center. “And that was successful, as well.”
Now, as Cynthia sternly stated while thanking people for coming to give blood,
“It’s now time to give back; we’re going to do everything we can to give back and for all the help Candace received.”
Candace added, “Over 15 people in this building took the test for me. The support I received was incredible; that’s why we want to give back. There are so many people who don’t have anyone as a donor.”
Among those people, who yesterday afternoon didn’t mind staying after school to help their friend, was Bill Russo, a physical education teacher who coaches golf at Toll Gate and hockey for a club team at Providence College.
“I’m doing this for Candace,” Russo said while lying on the table giving his blood and being attended by a representative from the Rhode Island Blood Center that coordinated yesterday’s drive. “I’m happy to … give blood in her name.”
Student William Mann, 17, who like Woods is a senior, said, “I’m good friends with Miss Caluori; she’s going to be my dance partner for a school fundraiser. I’m here [giving blood] because I just really wanted to help.”
Yesterday’s blood drive, which was coordinated by Toll Gate teacher/coach Lana Razza and R.I. Blood Center Account Manager Josh Toso, was such an overwhelming success that Candace said, “My transplant team is coming here tonight to give blood.”