Diocesan News

Catholic Queens Man’s Prayers Are Answered: A Lifesaving Kidney Donor Is Found

Petar Vukelich and Allison Joyce, his kidney donor, together on Sunday, May 25. (Photo: Courtesy of Petar Vukelich)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — On Friday, May 23, Petar Vukelich did something he had never done before. He put a new set of rosary beads, a gift from his mother’s friend, around his neck. He kissed the cross, asked God to protect him, and just two hours later, he said, he received a call, giving him the news he had been waiting months for.

Allison Joyce was giving her old friend, who had been approaching end-stage renal failure, a kidney.

When Vukelich and Joyce were in high school over three decades ago, they ran in similar circles. Their Sunnyside and Woodside parishes neighbored each other, friendships overlapped, and they came to know each other well. 

So when Vukelich saw that Joyce had called him on Thursday, May 23, he returned the call the following day, thinking it would be just old pals catching up. Instead, she gave him the news of a lifetime. Joyce was offering to save his life. 

“I’ve used the term ‘mind blown’ before, and it really doesn’t do any justice to getting that phone call, having the combination of tears and joy and not knowing what to say,” he said.

Later that day, when their families came together in celebration, he showed Joyce the rosary beads, which she says look just like the beads she got from St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in 2000.

Since December, Vukelich has been on the search for a living kidney donor, and was running out of options. He had been diagnosed with chronic kidney disease, meaning that his kidneys could not filter blood as they were supposed to. 

That gift he needed came from Joyce, who had already undergone testing prior to calling Vukelich, ensuring that he would not get hopes up and that she was a match for kidney donation. 

“So, if you want my kidney, you can have it,” she told him over the phone. “He was just shocked and speechless right away, which was funny because he’s never one to be at a loss for words,” she noted.

Joyce had heard vaguely about Vukelich’s deteriorating health through friends, but when she saw a flyer his family had released announcing their search for a kidney donor, she wanted to see if she could help. 

The flyer detailed how to get tested through Northwell Health, and she reached out to the Living Donor Ambassadors at the hospital. Within a few days, she knew she was a viable match, and told the doctors she wanted to call Vukelich herself.

“It’s a feeling I’ve certainly never felt before, just complete euphoria,” Vukelich said. “I keep telling her thank you … the term doesn’t do justice expressing how I feel towards this selfless act.” 

Vukelich learned of his kidney failure following a collapse at work at the end of last year. After hearing the diagnosis, his wife and three daughters turned to their faith communities in search of prayers and support. 

Given that it can take five to seven years for a kidney to be available via the United Network for Organ Sharing transplant list in New York City, Vukelich needed to find someone willing to “share their spare,” as his family called it. 

His church, Queen of Angels in Sunnyside, and his daughter’s Catholic schools — St. Sebastian Catholic Academy and Monsignor McClancy High School — posted the flyer on their social media, and organizations like the Knights of Columbus had also offered support. Through his mother’s connection to her home country, he had received prayers from as far away as Croatia.

The blessing, however, came from just down Queens Boulevard, in the parish where his kids go to school, making it even more sweet. It was someone from both his faith and his community. After he heard, he bounced around, telling all his loved ones the good news.

“It’s because of her faith. It’s not just something that happens willy-nilly. It’s just amazing, the take your breath away type of selfless act,” Vukelich said.

Donating a kidney was not a foreign concept for Joyce, whose close friend had given her own to a loved one a few years ago. From her friend, she learned there weren’t many risks to donation. 

People can live normal lives with only one kidney, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Following the surgery, the remaining kidney will increase in size to compensate, and donation does not affect life expectancy or appear to increase the risk of kidney failure.

She told herself then that, if she had the opportunity, she would donate her kidney. Now, the St. Sebastian parishioner is getting the chance to respond to the Vukelich family’s prayers. 

The Kidney Transplantation Committee approved her donation, and Vukelich is scheduled for kidney transplant surgery on July 22.

“It’s nothing to be scared of,” Joyce said. “Just take the chance if you know somebody. Even if you don’t know somebody, just be registered.”