Diocesan News

Catholic Queens Man Urgently Seeking a Living Kidney Donor Asks: ‘Share Your Spare’

Petar Vukelich is a devout husband and father, with three daughters. (Photo: Courtesy of Elaine Vukelich)

SUNNYSIDE — When Petar Vukelich had kidney stones nearly two years ago, he thought that would be the last time he heard about any issues with that organ. But then, he collapsed at work and was rushed to the hospital. Following an onslaught of testing, he learned the unimaginable: his kidney was failing.

What had been presented as dehydration and exhaustion was actually chronic kidney disease, or CKD, a condition in which the kidneys cannot filter blood as they should. Immediately after the diagnosis, he was given three options by his doctors: find a kidney donor, go on dialysis, or accept inevitable death.

“Well, there are only two choices, aren’t there?” he told the doctors.

Approaching end-stage renal failure, Vukelich, 50, desperately needs a kidney transplant, and he is asking his Catholic community for help. With support from the Living Donor Ambassadors at Northwell Health, his family and friends have begun spreading flyers asking people to “share your spare,” informing people how they can donate a kidney to Vukelich.

Vukelich’s church, Queen of Angels in Sunnyside, and his three young daughter’s Catholic schools — St. Sebastian Catholic Academy and Monsignor McClancy High School — have all put the flyer on social media and in their bulletins, and word is spreading about Vukelich’s campaign. They have also received support from the Knights of Columbus and local Sunnyside community groups.

“It was weird because I knew there was a chance of something going wrong and that he wouldn’t get one [a kidney]. But I know he will,” his daughter Emma Vukelich, 15, said. “I just think about him all the time.”

Meanwhile, his kidney function is at less than 10% and continues to deteriorate.

Currently, the hope is for Vukelich to find a living kidney donor. Thousands of people are currently on the kidney transplant wait list in New York, managed by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), so there is a much slimmer chance that Vukelich will receive a kidney from a deceased organ donor. According to New York-Presbyterian, the average wait time for a kidney in New York State is five to seven years.  

Furthermore, a kidney from a living donor lasts about 15 to 20 years on average, compared to 7 to 10 years from a deceased donor, according to the National Kidney Foundation. There’s also less chance of rejection. 

With no monetary obligations from the donor — all expenses are covered by the recipient’s insurance — and little change to their life after donation, Vukelich and his family are beyond hopeful he will hear good news soon. Until then, they have turned to their faith.

Until Vukelich can receive a kidney transplant, his family asks for people to spread the word about his condition and to pray for him. Sharing his flyer and story, they maintain, is just as important as donation itself. 

Since his campaign began in December, he has received prayer intentions from as far as his mother’s home country, Croatia. For Petar himself, the Serenity Prayer has brought him peace.

“I heard that prayer in the past, but now it works with what I’m going through, it has a much deeper meaning for me,” he said.

His wife of nearly 18 years, Elaine Vukelich, was hoping she could donate her kidney to Petar. She began the testing, which can take upward of two months, before UNOS had even approved him to be on the transplant list in December. However, in one of the final tests for approval, a calcification was discovered on her kidney, rendering her ineligible for donation.

“You jump at the first opportunity to get tested. I didn’t think twice about it. It’s my husband,” Vukelich said. “It broke my heart when they told me I wasn’t a candidate.”

She isn’t the only one working desperately to support Vukelich. When the Living Donor Ambassadors organized the first meeting to create a flyer on Petar’s behalf, nearly 20 people showed up. 

Many were from his Sunnyside Catholic community, such as his best friend Mike Reddington. Inseparable since kindergarten, they were altar boys and sacristans at Queen of Angels, and to Reddington, there is no one more deserving of a kidney transplant. 

“He is the leader of our group, the one that people would really do anything for,” Reddington said. “He gives the shirt off his back for anyone that he knows and loves and cares about. He’s there for anyone when they need him.”

The Living Donor Ambassadors are supporting the Vukelich family, and hundreds like him, in their first year since formation. Created by Libbie Binkiewicz and Marc Forest, the organization provides emotional guidance and support to recipient families, while aiding them in their search for a living donor. 

Forest is a recipient of a kidney transplant himself, and was in a similar situation as Vukelich. His donor was, at the time, anonymous, and since receiving a kidney transplant, he has gone on to live a normal life. He expects the same to happen to Vukelich.

“I know this for a fact: Pete’s donor is out there. They just might not know about it yet,” Forest said.