Fifteen years ago, Michael DiPiano was preparing to die.
With his health deteriorating because of diabetes, the Nutley. NJ native was on dialysis for kidney failure and had been read his Last Rites. He was a devoted husband and father of three, a well-known wrestling coach and athletic director in New Jersey.
His life, while so fulfilling, was seemingly coming to an end, at the age of 47.
On Oct. 25, 1998, Mike’s life was re-invented with the gift of a double organ donation. And today, things couldn’t be better for the man most of us know as ‘Big Dip’ and whose heart and vitalized spirit has helped thousands with his ‘Gift of Life’ message and the significance of organ donation.
Now living the dream in Daytona Beach, Fla., with his wife, Karen, Mike has spent countless hours with children who also have received organ donations. Every Christmas season, he hosts a party at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston for those children.
The organs that saved Mike’s life were donated by a man we’ll know simply as Sean, a 21-year-old who, on Oct. 24, 1998, was killed in an automobile accident. Sean had indicated on his driver’s license that he wanted to be an organ donor in the event of his death.
DiPiano had never meant Sean, but he lives life every day with the constant reminder that Sean is indeed a part of him.
“The greatest gift of all,” DiPiano said with a smile. “I’ll never be able to repay that gift.”
Mike recalled the months and years leading up to what is now his 15th anniversary of good health.
“Back in 1995, I was told I would need a double transplant because of a nearly 30-year battle with diabetes,” DiPiano recalled. “I remember a year later, I was at the Olympics in Atlanta and I was told to get to a hospital right away. My sugar was high but I thought I’d be okay. Later that summer, when I was back home, I was rushed to St. Michael’s Hospital and got so sick that (St. Benedict’s Headmaster) Father Edwin (Leahy) read my last rites and they were already planning my funeral at St. Benedict’s.”
At that time, Dr. Leon Smith stepped in, through a contact of Fr. Leahy’s. A renowned Internist who specializes in infectious diseases, he assessed DiPiano’s condition.
“Whatever he did, he took me from a five to 10 percent chance of surviving,” DiPiano recalled. “He saved my life, because even Father Edwin said ‘if he can get to 10 percent, he’ll make it.'”</
Having administered the last rites to DiPiano, Fr. Leahy knew a higher power was looking out for DiPiano.
"If it weren't for Dr. Smith and the Grace of God, we would have lost him a long time ago," Fr. Leahy said. "He went from a 5 percent chance of survival to the poster child for organ transplant. It's a great overall story."
DiPiano's association with St. Benedict’s Preparatory School in Newark is legendary. As the wrestling coach there, he amassed a record of 274-89 and was named the Coach of the Year by the Newark Star-Ledger in 1987. He is a member of the St. Benedict’s Hall of Fame, as well as the USA Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, Oklahoma. After coaching at St. Benedict’s, DiPiano became the school’s athletic director.
In May, 2012, he received the school’s highest honor to a Lay person, the Medal of St. Benedict’s.
“Mike DiPiano helped build this place,” Fr. Leahy said of St. Benedict’s. “He must have held 1,000 different positions here. He was the spine of the school.”
Mike’s family, his wife, Karen, daughter Michelle and sons Michael Jr. and Frank had never given up on the rock of their family beating any kind of odds.
“My kids were incredible during the toughest times,” Karen DiPiano recalled. “We’re a close family and everyone took a part in being there for him. We all believed he’d get better.”
DiPiano was on dialysis for nearly two years, and at the top of the list for a transplant, before fate intervened in October, 1998.
“Back then, everyone used beepers to keep in touch,” DiPiano said. “I’m out with a friend and the beeper goes off, and I thought it was his. But he looked at me, and said ‘no, it’s yours’. That beeper was there only to inform me of a possible transplant match, so when I returned the call, I knew things would be happening quickly.”
When DiPiano was informed that there was a match for his kidney and pancreas, there was little time to get to know who the donor was. The surgery was scheduled for Oct. 25, 1998, a date which is clearly evident on Michael’s right arm in the form of a tattoo.
“The surgery lasted about eight hours,” DiPiano recalled. “I was in the hospital about seven days. The biggest concern after a transplant is that the body could reject it, but everything went well. I could tell pretty quickly how much better I was feeling. I don’t think I really knew how sick I was until after the transplant.”
DiPiano actually has three kidneys now. “They don’t remove the old kidneys, they kind of stored them in my body,” he said with a laugh. “The one working kidney is in the normal place.”
With a new pancreas, DiPiano’s diabetes is no longer the concern it once was. With his blood sugar near normal, he doesn’t need to take insulin, but is careful with his diet.
As his health improved, DiPiano returned to work at St. Benedict’s in January of 1999. “I might have gone back a little too early,” he said, “but I felt like I was ready.”
He also wanted to know more about Sean.
“Normally, the process with a donor is that it’s anonymous,” DiPiano said. “I have gotten to communicate with Sean’s mother through E-mail, and while I’ve never met her, I hope to one day.”
DiPiano’s passion is talking about the importance of organ donation. He has been to numerous high schools in New Jersey, where he usually begins by showing a film clip about Jason Ray, the 21-year-old mascot for the University of North Carolina basketball team who was struck by a car and killed in 2007 while walking to a diner on Route 4 in Ft. Lee. (Lee was there because the basketball team was in New Jersey for the NCAA Eastern Regional).
“Jason was a organ donor and that film really has an impact on the kids,” DiPiano said. “It goes on to show the many people Jason saved by being a donor. It’s very emotional.”
On the surface, DiPiano is a hard-nosed individual, a man’s-man who takes no prisoners, so to speak. But he has no problems expressing his emotions on this subject. He recalls attending the first Transplant Games, for those athletes who are recipients of organ donation, in Minnesota some nine years ago.
“When I went to the first Transplant Games, it was such an overwhelming feeling for me,” DiPiano, his eyes welling, recalled. “That’s when I had the tattoo made, to honor Eric, the date of my transplant, as well as the initials of a very close friend, Peter Kupczak.”
DiPiano’s message has resonated well in Nutley and other communities in New Jersey. The Gift of Life Duals, a series of wrestling matches to bring awareness to organ donation, will have its third renewal this coming January. The first two events, at Nutley High, where Frank DiPiano is the head wrestling coach, were a huge success in Jan. 2012 and 2013. The 2014 version will be held at Demarest High, where Mike DiPiano, Jr., is the head coach.
And Mike Sr. will be there to deliver the message. While he lives in Florida, he’ll be ‘home’ for the holidays, to host the Christmas party in mid December, enjoy some quality time with his family and then devote time to the Gift of Life Duals, where the slogan ‘Organ Donation Is A Major Decision‘ will once again resonate.
“Over 110,000 people are waiting for an organ donation of some sort,” DiPiano said. “Twenty five die, waiting, each day. It is truly amazing what medical science can do when someone gets a new lease on life with a heart, lung, pancreas, kidney or liver. It’s amazing.”
Mike DiPiano is indeed an amazing man. He thanks his family, his friends and loved ones for the constant support. And he remembers a young man named Sean.
“I’ll never be able to thank him enough,” DiPiano said. “I just hope I can meet his mom one day and tell her that.”