To spur living kidney donations, family gives $2.5 million to Jefferson

When Lori Peruto wanted to donate a kidney to her father, real estate developer Bob Nicoletti, her gift swiftly turned into an ordeal.

Medical offices and lab services at Jefferson University Hospital in 2006 were scattered over several city blocks.

"I really felt like I was on a scavenger hunt going from building to building," said Peruto, general counsel for Philadelphia Suburban Development Corp. “I had a piece of paper and a map. It was frustrating.”

The surgery, however, went off without a hitch. Peruto was driving a week after the operation. Nicoletti went on to enjoy another decade; he died in February at 85.

In the decade after the transplant, Peruto and her siblings resolved that future kidney donors would not have to jump through hoops to give their loved ones the gift of life at Jefferson.

The new Nicoletti Kidney Transplant Center at Jeff is designed with that in mind.

Funded with a $2.5 million gift from the Robert V. Nicoletti Family Trust, the center aims to remove any source of aggravation for potential donors, making the experience as frictionless as possible.

“The center brings all the services to one place,” Peruto said.

Cataldo Doria, director of Jefferson Health’s Transplant Institute, hopes it will increase the number of live kidney donations at Jeff tenfold. A ribbon-cutting ceremony Wednesday, Dec. 14, will mark the center’s official opening.

The wait for a kidney from a deceased donor can last years, and more than 100,000 Americans are on the national wait list. Doctors in the United States perform about 20,000 kidney transplants annually, Doria said. But the gap between the number of available organs and the patients who need them is vast.

“The discrepancy is amazing,” Doria said. “Many people die while on the waiting list due to the lack of kidneys.”

The wait is cut short with a living donor. But only 5,000 people volunteer to offer an organ each year.

Nicoletti, who founded Philadelphia Suburban Development Corp. in 1962,  was an indefatigable optimist. He kept his kidney disease a secret for years, believing he would eventually get well. He declined to put his name on the wait list. Not until he was found to have end-stage renal failure and faced dialysis did he tell his family.

He called his children together to let them know his prospects for a transplant were slim. The waitlist was too long. The family sprang into action.

“When we learned of Dad’s condition, we knew what we had to do,” Peruto said. “There was no question, no hesitation.”

Seven family members volunteered to become live donors. Initially, Nicoletti refused their offers.

“In his mind, you don’t take from your kids. You only give to them,” his daughter said. Nicoletti’s doctor told him he would be unable to keep giving to his children unless he accepted a kidney. Nicoletti changed his mind. Doctors determined Peruto was the best match.  

The transplant provided Nicoletti with 10 more years to give to his children and grandchildren. It also inspired the philanthropist to donate generously to the Gift of Life House and Jefferson Health. “The Jefferson team helped us, and he wanted to pass it on for others," said Nicoletti’s son Mark.

The center, at Ninth and Chestnut Streets, will open to patients Monday.