Right Place, Right Time: Austin Resident Finds Hope During Trying Times

The son of an employee of The University of Texas at Austin receives a lifesaving surgery after transferring care to the Abdominal Transplant Center

Reviewed by: Jamie Rainelli (patient's mother)
Written by: Ashley Lawrence

Dom Rainelli is wearing a blue jacket, looking at the camera, and smiling. He is sitting outside on a deck on an overcast day.

During the summer of 2021, Penn State student Dom Rainelli learned he had unknowingly been in kidney failure for several years and was in need of a kidney transplant. “I was experiencing migraines, which is not normal,” recalls Dom. “So I made an appointment with a doctor at Penn State. Within 2-3 hours after a series of blood tests, I received a call from the doctor saying I should go to the nearest emergency room immediately. One thing led to another, and I was diagnosed with having kidney disease for the last four years or so.”

Dom was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, commonly referred to as Berger’s disease, which is an autoimmune disease that attacks the kidneys. An antibody known as immunoglobulin A (IgA) builds up in the kidneys, causing local inflammation that, over time, impacts the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from blood. IgA nephropathy usually progresses slowly over years but can vary from person to person. It is also common to not experience any symptoms of IgA nephropathy, particularly in the early stages, which is why it can go undetected for many years and even decades in some cases. The migraines Dom was experiencing were caused by the high blood pressure that was occurring due to his degradation of kidney functioning.

When Dom was diagnosed in early summer, his kidney function was at 18%. By the following winter, it had declined to 11%. He was in dire need of a kidney transplant, and if he didn’t find an approved donor match soon, he would have to resort to dialysis until a donor kidney became available. “I was running out of time if I was going to receive a kidney before the point of dialysis,” explains Dom. Patients who undergo kidney transplantation before needing dialysis are known to have better outcomes.

Dom’s mother, Jamie Rainelli, moved to Austin after accepting the role of Office Manager for Texas Parents, The University of Texas at Austin’s official association of parents and families. Texas Parents serves all parents and families of enrolled undergraduate students at UT Austin who need assistance navigating university resources. While gathering resources for students and families across the university, Jamie came across an email from UT Health Austin, the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at UT Austin, announcing the opening of the Abdominal Transplant Center, a clinical partnership between UT Health Austin and Ascension Seton.

“When I saw the email announcement last November, I thought, ‘How can I get Dom down here?’” shares Jamie. “We knew that Dom’s kidney function was worsening rapidly, and we were not all that happy with the care he was receiving up north. I also feared we were risking putting him on dialysis if we didn’t find a donor in time. But just like that, all the pieces seemed to fall into place.”

Originally, Dom was scheduled to receive his transplant at a hospital in Pennsylvania. In preparation of his upcoming surgery, he began taking online classes at Penn State to ensure he could continue to pursue his education throughout his transplant journey without delaying his graduation. However, Jamie wasn’t all that pleased about Dom receiving care so far away.

Dom Rainelli and his dog
Dom Rainelli and his dog.

By the end of January, a family member of Dom’s, Sergeant First Class Kayla Wright, was approved to be his match. However, the transplant center in Pennsylvania couldn’t schedule the transplant until March or April at the earliest. Knowing time was of the essence, Jamie and Dom to reach out to the Abdominal Transplant Center. Dom consulted with UT Health Austin abdominal transplant surgeon Nicole Turgeon, MD, FACS, who serves as the Transplant Director for the Abdominal Transplant Center, by phone.

On Sunday, February 13, Dom and Kayla flew to Austin together. It was the first time they had seen each other in over a decade. Both Dom and Kayla met with Dr. Turgeon and UT Health Austin transplant nephrologist Brian K Lee, MD, who serves as Medical Director of the Kidney Transplant Program within the Abdominal Transplant Center, the next day. The transplant surgery was scheduled for the following week.

“When I learned that Dom was in kidney failure, donating my kidney wasn’t even a question,” shares Kayla, a military intelligence officer in the United States Army who has served on active duty for over 13 years. “Family is family, and when your family needs you, you show up.”

On Tuesday, February 22, 2022, the Abdominal Transplant Center care team, led by Dr. Turgeon, performed its first living donor procurement and kidney transplant surgery. Kayla’s healthy kidney was successfully removed and transplanted alongside Dom’s failing kidneys.

Kayla Wright
Kayla Wright is applauded by caregivers of the Abdominal Transplant Center who line the halls as she travels from her room to the operating room for surgery.

“I have thanked Kayla hundreds and thousands of times,” shares Dom. “She saved my life, and it’s unbelievable to think about how fast this happened and how she was immediately willing to give me her kidney.” Dom’s kidney transplant can be expected to last 7-20 years, meaning he will eventually need another donor.

“Throughout this entire process, I’ve had the easy part,” says Kayla. “I just had to say, ‘Hey, I’ll donate.’ It’s been an honor to be the person who gives Dom the gift of life, and my hope is that this gift will allow him to live a more fulfilled life.”

Kayla is recovering well and will return to her duty station in New York within a matter of weeks. If Kayla was ever to need a kidney in the future, she would be moved up the National Kidney Registry list because of her gift.

Learn more about the Living Kidney Donor Program within the Abdominal Transplant Center.

<br>If you are interested in being considered for living kidney donation, please complete the online medical screening questionnaire.

<br>”Every day, I feel better and better,” shares Dom. “And every year on the day of our surgery, Kayla and I will have our very own kidney party. After undergoing this process, I feel a lot closer to her. She feels like a sister to me.”

Within three months, Dom should feel the full effects of a healthy kidney. Dom will remain in the Austin area to be close to his care team at the Abdominal Transplant Center. He plans to return to Penn State briefly in May to attend graduation.

“Since arriving at UT Austin, I’ve fallen in love with the Longhorn community, and I can’t say enough about Dr. Turgeon and the rest of the care team at the Abdominal Transplant Center,” says Jamie. “Our experience has been absolutely amazing. They truly cared about Dom and Kayla and wanted to make sure they both received the best possible outcome. They made us all feel so comfortable, and I feel very blessed to be where we are today.”

The Abdominal Transplant Center will also offer services for patients in need of a pancreas transplant and those who may need a simultaneous kidney and pancreas transplant later this year. The Abdominal Transplant Center hopes to develop a liver program in the next 3-5 years. Patients in need of a pancreas or liver transplant currently have to travel to San Antonio, Houston, or Dallas to receive care.

For more information about the Abdominal Transplant Center or to make an appointment, please call 1-512-324-7930 or visit here.

About the Partnership Between UT Health Austin and Ascension Seton

The collaboration between UT Health Austin and Ascension brings together medical professionals, medical school learners, and researchers who are all part of the integrated mission of transforming healthcare delivery and redesigning the academic health environment to better serve society. This collaboration allows highly specialized providers who are at the forefront of the latest research, diagnostic, and technological developments to build an integrated system of care that is a collaborative resource for clinicians and their patients.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.