That was the decision that Cindy Stupinski Santos, formerly of Bayonne, faced late last year, when a one-day substitute teacher assignment wound up altering her life in ways she never imagined.
Born and raised in Bayonne, the former 37th Street resident graduated from Horace Mann School and Holy Family Academy before meeting the love of her life, marrying him, and relocating to Pennsylvania in 1992.
Her husband’s job at Kutztown University eventually landed them in Blandon, Pa., where she’s lived since 1993, raising her three boys; Casey, 18, Brett, 16 and Evan, 13.
To help support the family, Santos substitute teaches for the Fleetwood Area School District, which encompasses several towns in Berks County, a suburb of Philadelphia.
In was last Sept. 12 when Santos worked at the Richmond Elementary School in Richmond Township that she met Katelynn Ernst, 5.
Katelynn was in Santos’s kindergarten class that day, and the school nurse had mentioned to her that there was a student who had special medical needs, who might have to visit her office during the day.
She explained to Santos that Katelynn had limited kidney function, and that she was on dialysis 10 hours a day, every day, when at home.
A couple of days later, Santos was on Facebook, when she came across a page describing a young child who’d had a serious e coli virus at 22 months old which had severely damaged her kidney.
“I didn’t really look close at it. I had seen a suggested page,” Santos said. “When I clicked on it the light bulb went off; ‘That’s the girl. That’s the girl in class.’”
It was Katelynn, that little girl the nurse had talked about.
It turned out that Katelynn’s family and Santos had common friends, and that many of Santos’s friends had added Katelynn’s Facebook page.
But there was more.
The teacher and student lived only one mile apart.
Santos’s interest was clearly piqued. She believes things happen for a reason.
“I kept up with Facebook; I found out so much more about her,” Santos said.
“They had lists on their page; factors if you want to become a donor; blood type, age, and being healthy. And I fit all of those.”
Santos knew she wanted to help this young girl. She began her quest, thinking their meeting was destiny.
“I don’t believe in any coincidence,” she said. “I believe god put me there for that. It felt like there was a force working to bring us together. It definitely was divine intervention.”
So Santos did some investigating, finding the information on Facebook for Penn State Hershey Medical Center and Katelynn’s donor coordinator, whom she contacted.
“They asked a ton of questions; basically medical history-type questions,” she said. “I spoke to a coordinator.”
She gave Santos the background on what it is to be a donor and a packet of information.
“It contained oodles of tests. Urine tests. Scans. BP. All kinds of stuff,” she said. “And when all of that information was sent to Hershey, they scheduled me for a full-day clinic at their facility.”
Friday, Oct. 25 was a day of “lots and lots of tests.” She met with the transplant team and with social workers. Santos had arrived the night before, and stayed in a hotel in Hershey, not wanting to miss her appointment.
While there, she contacted the Ernst family for the first time, messaging them via Facebook and introducing herself to them, and telling them she was doing the testing that might result in their daughter receiving one of her kidneys.
The family had been told someone was going through screenings, and not much else.
“They didn’t know at which stage I was at with the process,” Santos said. “The clinic portion was very important. I think they were pretty excited at that point.”
The transplant team met on Nov. 14, and Santos’s results came back positive. There was one thing they found, however. Through a CT scan they had picked up that she had a condition known as pelvic congestive syndrome.
Giving and also receiving
The odd thing about it was a doctor said her kidney donation to Katelynn would likely help her.
“The ob/gyn said I would actually more than likely benefit from a surgery like this,” Santos said.
“Taking my left kidney out would take pressure off and help alleviate my symptoms. I thought, ‘Not only is it going to help her greatly, but it would help me also as well.’”
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, the transplant team met again and officially approved Santos as a donor for Katelynn. She got the call the day after Thanksgiving.
Home for Christmas
Originally scheduled for Dec. 17, the surgery was moved up a week to Dec. 10 at Santos’s request so that both she and Katelynn could be home for Christmas. They both were, for maybe the best Christmas ever.
Santos said she had never seriously thought about organ donation to that point in her life, except for casually checking off the yes spot on her driver’s license.
“But as I came to know Katelynn, and came to know her story, I realized I could do it now,” Santos said. “And it was a neat thing.”
Perfectly laid path
She’s happy everything went well with the process. It could have been stopped at any point along the way, for a number of reasons.
“The way everything played out was great,” Santos said. “There were just no roadblocks along the way. The path was perfectly laid.”
Two days out of surgery were the toughest times for her, with black and blue marks and tubes coming out of her. Sitting there then in the hospital taking pain medications was no fun. But she doesn’t regret it for one second.
“Obviously it was the right thing to do,” Santos said. “This is the most energy she’s had since a year and half old. She has life again.”
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.