Phillips has School of Nursing senior Jennifer DeNino to thank for teaching him this lesson, and for giving him back his life in the process.
"I had to realize that Jen did something for me and all I can do is be grateful and leave it at that," said Phillips, a 23-year-old Tolland, Conn., resident. "It took me a while to realize that some people just want to be good to others."
DeNino's act of goodness occurred in December when she donated one of her kidneys to Phillips, a long-time family friend.
The story began last summer when DeNino returned home to South Windsor, Conn., from a semester abroad in Australia. She learned that Phillips had developed a degenerative kidney problem, a rare condition for someone his age.
"Basically he had end-stage kidney failure and needed to begin dialysis right away," recalled DeNino, who knew a lot about her friend's condition through her nursing training.
Treatments were unsuccessful, and when the Phillips family found none of them were matches for donating their kidneys to Alex, they were forced to look elsewhere.
"Without a new kidney, Alex would not have been able to live the way he should," she said.
A battery of tests determined that DeNino's kidney was anatomically and physiologically perfect for Phillips.
"I had no reservations about it after that," DeNino explained. "I knew what I was getting into."
But while DeNino wanted to help her friend, her family did not see things her way.
"Every person in my family did everything to change my mind," DeNino said. "My family opposed and I understood why: They were scared for me."
Part of the organ donation process, DeNino explains, includes consulting a social worker, a psychiatrist and surgeons who have to be assured that donors are aware of the risks involved. These experts also make sure that donors are not making choices blinded by emotion.
"It's not just a scientific process, it's very human," she said.
Some of those whom she consulted included Boston College faculty members and University Counseling Services.
"At first I was in shock when she told me what she wanted to do," said Assoc. Prof. Judith Shindul-Rothschild (SON), DeNino's faculty advisor. "But if you know Jen at all you know that this is not really out of character for her."
Shindul-Rothschild implored DeNino to fully explore the decision and talk to as many people as possible before going through with the procedure.
"I wasn't so concerned with what she decided, as long as she made an informed choice," she said.
Despite the questions and some criticism, DeNino said she never wavered in her decision to donate the kidney.
"You can't go through life asking 'What if?' I had the chance to help someone out and wanted to go through with it."
For his part, Phillips was stunned that DeNino would make such an offer.
"More than anything, she talked me into letting her do it," he says. "I had a very hard time talking to her about it, because I didn't want her to feel like I was talking her into it."
The operation took place on Dec. 15 at Hartford Hospital. Once DeNino's kidney was surgically placed inside Phillips, it began functioning perfectly.
"They are very positive about the results," said DeNino. "Within two days they said he was back to normal kidney function."
Phillips reports that his health is returning to normal, although there are some minor problems that linger, as doctors expected.
Because of the operation, DeNino won't be able to use the common pain killer Ibuprofen for the rest of her life. But other than that, there should be no other drawbacks for her, other than some scars that will heal over time.
DeNino, who is a frequent blood donor and has always been an advocate of organ donation, was surprised by how her own action affected her.
"It was really strange. I was on Cloud 9. It was an amazing feeling," she said.
DeNino plans to become a registered nurse after graduation and hopes to work in the Boston area.
As a token of gratitude, Phillips gave DeNino a silver wrist watch following the procedure. Inscribed on the back is the date of the operation and two simple words: "Forever linked."
"There's definitely always going to be a connection between us," she said.
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