Spotlight Newsletter | Jim Cassella

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Every day, 13 people die while waiting for a new kidney

Thanks to you–and to his wife Denise–Jim Casella wasn’t one of them

“NO REGRETS,” Denise Cassella said to her husband, Jim, as they wheeled her into surgery. She was on her way to donate one of her kidneys to a stranger, so that Jim could receive a new kidney—before it was too late.

Denise and Jim hold their wedding photo on the occasion of their thirtieth anniversary as their children Jessica and Brian look on. “If not for the altruistic donor and YNHH,” says Denise, “we might not even be celebrating our thirtieth.”


The story of Jim’s kidney disease started over twenty years ago—and came to its happy conclusion in July 2015, when he and Denise participated in a paired kidney exchange at Yale New Haven Hospital.

When Jim was 40, he was diagnosed with “minimal change disease,” a condition that can damage kidney function. It typically affects children and is usually treated successfully with medication. Jim’s case was not typical. The medication didn’t work.

For twenty years, Jim was able to manage his symptoms— high blood pressure, fluid retention, and shortness of breath—with medicines, a strict diet, and a healthy lifestyle. It wasn’t always easy, but he refused to allow his condition to interfere with his career as a neuroscientist or his life as a husband and father.

“Suddenly, around 2012,” says Jim, “my kidney function started to deteriorate.” Before long, he had to start dialysis treatments.

Dialysis allowed him to function, but it wasn’t a good long-term solution. “Jim wasn’t doing well,” says Denise.

“He was losing a lot of weight. Watching your husband start to fail…it’s frightening”

Shortcut to the top of the list
Jim desperately needed a new kidney, but there was a seven-year waiting list. “I knew we couldn’t risk that delay,” says Denise. “I decided to donate one of mine.”

But she and Jim had different blood types. He couldn’t use her kidney. That’s where the Paired Exchange Program at YNHH came in. The program matches an incompatible donor-recipient pair like Denise and Jim to another pair, and they “exchange” donors. In this way, a compatible match is made for both patients.

Denise’s decision to donate bumped Jim to the top of the list. Within a couple of months, a perfect match was identified. Jim received his kidney from an “altruistic donor,” a woman who wanted to save a life by donating a kidney—even though she didn’t have a particular recipient in mind.

Peter Yoo, MD, Jim’s surgeon and the Director of the Paired Exchange Program, says the matching process—which can involve many multiple pairs—is like a complicated puzzle, involving computer algorithms and “ingenious and creative nurses who keep a zillion details in mind to see who will fit with what.”

This past July, two years after the surgery, Denise and Jim celebrated their thirtieth wedding anniversary with a party. “We are so grateful to YNHH and the altruistic donor,” says Denise. “If not for them, we might not even be celebrating our thirtieth. So we asked our guests to make donations to the Transplantation Center,” says Denise.

Dr. Yoo would like to urge people to consider donating a kidney. “There is a very acute shortage of transplantable organs,” he says. “YNHH has such a high record of safety that the only lasting effect of donation is the satisfaction of having saved a life.”

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