- Associated Press - Saturday, October 11, 2014

LEOMINSTER, Mass. (AP) - At 28 years old, Leominster resident Kaitlin O’Connell is no stranger to seeing those people she loves the most suffering from life-threatening medical conditions.

After contracting hepatitis at a young age, her father is in liver failure and without a transplant he may not live to see her get married or have children.

O’Connell’s father, Barry, has been on the transplant list for one year now.

She said her father, now 60, contracted hepatitis C when he was 18 after he and his friends gave each other home tattoos. She said everyone he was with that day all contracted the disease.

While the hepatitis is gone, he’s in stage-four liver failure, and the liver disease is attacking his lungs, she said.

Instantly, she knew she wanted to be an organ donor, but learned she could not donate to her father because it was a safety risk

“Mine is a little smaller than he needs to be safe. Learning that was devastating,” she said. “It’s been tough. I think the toughest part of the whole thing was the actual denial of being able to donate to him.”

From that point on, she said, she knew she wanted to do something to help someone else, and have some closure in the whole ordeal.

Little did she know that her job as a kindergarten teacher at Page Hilltop Elementary School in Ayer would give her the perfect chance to give back in a way she never thought imaginable.

A father of a student at the school was in desperate need of a kidney, she said, and she immediately contacted her transplant coordinator to see if she was a match.

At the time, she said, another candidate was being considered, but in June, she found out that had fallen through and the transplant clinic was interested in having her evaluated.

After a number of blood tests, MRI’s and kidney-function tests, she learned she was a compatible donor.

“They’re all very invasive tests, but that’s good because it’s how they keep you safe,” she said.

The procedure will be done Oct. 21 at UMass Medical Center in Worcester, she said, and she couldn’t be more excited knowing she’s going to make a difference in someone’s life.

However, she said it is bittersweet for her knowing that while she is saving someone’s life, her father remains on the transplant list.

“He’s a man of few words but many emotions. He’s definitely cried about it,” she said. “He’s nervous, but he’s proud of me too. He knows what it means to them. He knows how important it will be for their kids to have a dad growing up like my siblings and I did.”

O’Connell is one of five siblings and the only one to be tested to see if she was a match for her father.

Once she recovers, she will be able to do everything she could before the surgery, including working out, she said. One of the biggest concerns her father had was whether this would jeopardize her ability to get pregnant if she wanted, but doctors have assured her it will not have an impact on that.

One of the hardest things, she said, is being out of work for four to eight weeks while she is recovering. In addition to teaching, she also works two nights a week at Embers in Lunenburg and one night a week at The Luxury Box, both owned by fellow Leominster resident Kenneth Ricker.

When Ricker heard about what she planned to do, he was initially speechless, she remembers.

“I kept telling him I would make sure to fill my shifts because I was sure that’s what was going through his head,” she said. “After a minute he told me not to worry about it and how impressed he was with what I was doing.

Ricker immediately started thinking of ways to help alleviate some of the financial stress that would inevitably come along with this.

Ricker said he knows how hard she works, and thought it was the least he could do for his employee.

“I think it’s tremendous. It’s such a selfless thing to do. She knows it firsthand with her dad and what it’s been like,” he said. “For her to do it basically for a stranger, I think that just says a lot about her as a person, her character, and her selflessness. She’s really going above and beyond.”

Ricker said he didn’t want her to think about money while she was recovering.

“I know how much she makes. I have the means to do this and help. I own a restaurant and I have the space. I just said why not,” he said. “It’s always that way with my employees. They always step up. I thought it was a cool thing, what she’s doing. I thought she should be recognized for what she’s doing.”

O’Connell said she was floored when she heard about what Ricker was going to do.

“It’s overwhelming. I know this probably sounds cliché, but it’s restored by faith in humanity,” she said. “It shows me there are still good people in the world. I’ve just been flooded with support since this whole process started.”

The fundraiser will take place at 6 p.m. on Oct. 16 in the function room of The Luxury Box in Leominster. There will be appetizers, live music and raffles. Tickets are not required, but donations will be accepted.

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