'I guess God's on my side': North Branford woman celebrates 40 years since kidney transplant

Photo of Meghan Friedmann

NORTH BRANFORD — Sandy Ragozzino and her family planned to celebrate an anniversary Friday evening.

It wasn’t just any anniversary. July 30, 2021, marked 40 years since Ragozzino, 61, underwent a kidney transplant at Yale New Haven Hospital.

The average living donor kidney lasts 15 to 20 years, according to the National Kidney Foundation. But Ragozzino has been living with hers twice as long.

“Every day I wake up, I feel lucky,” said Ragozzino, who grew up in Wallingford and lives in North Branford. “I can’t believe it.”

Dr. Margaret Bia, a Yale transplant nephrologist who served as Ragozzino’s longtime care provider before she retired in 2017, said that when kidneys last 10 to 20 years, it’s considered “a good run.”

Bia had other patients live 40 years with a transplant, but not many, she said.

“It’s very unusual to have a kidney last (40 years), and it’s usually with the kidneys that are the very best match,” she said.

Ragozzino’s transplant has become a part of family lore, according to Ragozzino’s daughter, Amy Russo.

“It’s like a big story to tell each year,” she said. “We just have a get together each year and really just celebrate the life that she’s gotten.”

For the 40th anniversary, Ragozzino’s brother, Stanley Swidock, was visiting from Florida. The family would get together for a picnic to kick off the weekend.

Earlier in the week, Ragozzino described how the transplant changed her life.

Her health problems began when she was in high school.

They came to light during a health class.

When Ragozzino and other students were learning to take blood pressure, hers turned out to be high.

She went to the doctor and learned her kidneys were failing.

Over the next several years, Ragozzino was in and out of the hospital. She received dialysis three days a week in five-hour sessions, according to her mother, Vincenza Swidock.

It “drained” her, Stanley Swidock said.

He recalled how his mother changed her cooking because his sister had to limit her salt intake.

“I remember Sandy was dying to have a piece of pizza, the ah-beetz from New Haven,” he said.

But having to forgo the local specialty was far from the most serious consequence of Ragozzino’s condition.

Though she managed to keep a job at an insurance company, her illness kept her from having a social life — she was too tired when she got home at the end of the day.

“I was tired, you know, nauseated. … You felt like a train hit you,” Ragozzino said of that time. “It was hard to do anything.”

One time, Stanley Swidock remembered, his sister got so sick they were afraid she would not make it.

“It was touch and go,” Swidock said. “(But) she got better and then was able to do the transplant a little while later.”

It would be Swidock who gave his sister a new kidney.

Though Ragozzino initially had been hesitant about getting the transplant, she said, if “I didn’t have a transplant, I figured, I probably wouldn’t live. … That’s why I decided, ‘I gotta do something.’”

Still, she worried about the surgery.

“There are people that have a transplant and like, sometimes it doesn’t take, you know, like maybe it might last a couple of months and that’s it,” she said. “I would hate for my brother to donate his kidney and two months later they have to remove it and that’s the end, (because) I know that happens to people.”

But the transplant was successful, and Ragozzino’s kidney lasted more than a couple of months — two decades, and counting.

Her experience has taught her the value of donating organs.

“If people could donate, they would save a lot of lives,” Ragozzino said. Even signing up to be an organ donor in the event that you die “is so important … there’s so many people on waiting lists.”

What’s Ragozzino most grateful to have experienced over the past four decades? Family.

She went on to have four children — two daughters and two sons. She has grandchildren now, too.

As Ragozzino’s children grew up, she went to all their sporting events and school activities “like nothing ever happened,” she said. “I really did live a good life after my transplant.”

“She’s gotten a second chance to live a normal healthy life, and we’re grateful for that,” said her daughter. “It’s quite a miracle that she’s had this one kidney for so long ... and of course to have your mom there for all of your first life experiences.”

Ronald Ragozzino, Sandy Ragozzino’s son, knows that by all odds, he probably shouldn’t exist.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” he said. “I shouldn’t even be here right now”

Sandy Ragozzino doesn’t complain, but life post-transplant hasn’t always been easy. The medication she began taking after her transplant “just tears down your body,” her mother said.

Bia said transplant recipients take medication to keep their bodies from rejecting the foreign tissue. The regimens can cause a number of side effects, including cancer, infections and cardiovascular disease, according to Bia.

“(Ragozzino) was such a trouper in terms of being able to take the side effects of the medications and still try to have a normal life,” Bia said of her former patient. “The fact that she did it with so much grace and so much dignity, you know, I would just consider it such a privilege to take care of her.”

Ragozzino has faced other health problems. She is recovering from a stroke she suffered earlier this year, she said, and is awaiting knee surgery.

Though the stroke was mild, she said, it “took a little toll on my body.”

Ragozzino doesn’t seem to let it get her down.

“I consider myself lucky. I mean, I really do, because all these things happen to me, and you know, knock on wood … I come through,” she said. “I don’t know what it is. I guess God’s on my side.”

Ragozzino’s optimism and determination impress her own mother.

“She’s always upbeat. She never gives in. She fights it, you know, and just takes one day at a time,” Vincenza Swidock said of her daughter. “I marvel at her.”