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Tony Jimenez gets the ‘best Christmas present ever’

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Glen Cove resident Tony Jimenez had a major influence on his niece Julianne Jimenez’s life nearly a decade ago. Julianne was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and it was her uncle Tony who saved her life, she said.

“Uncle Tony came over and gave me a heart-to-heart, telling me about the 12-step program that had helped him,” said Julianne, now 31 and a social worker. “He strongly suggested I go to an AA meeting, and gave me his 25-year [sobriety] coin as a keepsake, which I still have. He came to my first-, second- and third-year sobriety anniversaries. I’m approaching my 10th year.”

When Julianne, who lives in Centerport, learned this fall that her uncle was in desperate need of a kidney, she decided right away that she would be the donor. “I knew that giving my kidney was the right thing to do,” she explained. “Uncle Tony is an amazing guy. He is a giver and always has been.”

A Vietnam veteran, Jimenez, 69, enlisted in the Army in 1969, after he graduated from Clarke High School in Westbury. He served for two years, one as an infantryman in Vietnam, and eventually he became a sergeant.

Since then, Jimenez has served his community in a variety of ways. Over the course of more than 14 years he served as a city councilman, a Glen Cove Fire Department emergency medical technician and a county court officer, and he was one of the first people in Glen Cove to respond to the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, traveling by ferry to the World Trade Center.

Exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam, he was diagnosed with diabetes in 1980, and he suffered kidney failure two years ago. Knowing how his life would change once he underwent dialysis, he said, he put it off as long as he could. But his kidneys weren’t functioning, and filled with so much fluid that he suffered congestive heart failure.

In September he began dialysis, having been told that if he didn’t, he would die.

Because doctors had given him six to nine years to live this fall, he was denied inclusion on a list to receive a kidney from a cadaver donor. There is no living donor list.

Julianne didn’t tell her uncle right away that she wanted to donate a kidney to him. After stories about him appeared in local newspapers — including one in the Herald Gazette — more than 10 people called to offer a kidney but none were compatible, Tony said.

Julianne asked her father, Tony’s older brother, Phil, what he thought. She was nervous, she said, because she didn’t want to disappoint her uncle if she was not compatible. Phil called his brother.

“Initially I didn’t want her to do it,” Tony said. “I talked to my brother to get a feel from him. Phil’s opinion was that Julianne is an adult and can do what she wants. He gave the green light, ultimately.”

Tony called his niece and told her he was grateful. Julianne said he also assured her that she could change her mind at any time.

The process of determining her eligibility to donate began on Oct. 19. During a phone screening, she was asked if she had diabetes or high blood pressure or was obese. Next, she reported to the transplant center at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, where she spent eight hours having her blood drawn, undergoing X-rays and a CT scan, and speaking with a nurse administrator, a social worker and a nutritionist.

Then she had to wait, which she said was the hardest part. A week later, she did an online evaluation with two psychologists that she described as “nerve-racking.” “You have to tell them anything that ever happened to you,” she said, “and hope they don’t think you’re crazy.”

But two weeks later, she was approved.

On Nov. 30, Tony and Julianne walked into North Shore University Hospital holding hands. She gave him one last hug before the surgery.

Julianne and her cousin Nina, Tony’s daughter, are a month apart in age and are very close. “Julie took this on full-throttle,” Nina said. “She never had any surgeries before this. She told me it felt like this is what she was supposed to do.”

Julianne wasn’t in a great deal of pain after the nearly four-hour-long surgery, and recalled her first visit to her uncle’s room during their four days of recuperation. “When I went in, he told me his kidney function was showing normal levels,” she said. “It was the first time it hit me. We did this. I cried.”

Tony has been taking 21 pills a day to prevent rejection of the kidney and infection. The pain is manageable, he said, and he can walk around the block. But rejection is always a risk, so he will be taking medicine, though less as time goes on, for two years.

“It’s very funny, our relationship,” he said of his niece. “Both Julianne and I came through for each other in times of crisis.”

Tony’s wife, Kathy, a retired nurse, said words could not express her happiness. “This is the best Christmas present ever,” she said. “I see a difference in Tony already both physically and mentally. Julianne is an angel. She’s our hero.”