The Fight of Their Lives

The De­Mayo Fam­ily, from left to right: Mike, Dolores, Joe and Joey. Mike has suffered from kid­ney prob­lems his en­tire life, while Joey’s fight has just be­gun. Both sons need new kid­neys, and an up­com­ing loc­al be­ne­fit aims to help them. PHOTO COUR­TESY LOU

— Long­time ref­er­ee Joe De­Mayo and his fam­ily lean on a sup­port­ive com­munity as his two sons hope for new kid­neys.

As a col­lege bas­ket­ball ref­er­ee, Joe De­Mayo has one of the hard­est and most thank­less jobs. At any giv­en game, he’s bound to make count­less new en­emies, who will call in­to ques­tion everything from his eye­sight to his san­ity to his fam­ily’s lin­eage.

De­Mayo can handle the cri­ti­cism, though, be­cause he knows it’s an oc­cu­pa­tion­al haz­ard of the ca­reer he chose. 

What has been more dif­fi­cult to handle are the troubles that await him at home, which make the vit­ri­ol he en­coun­ters on the court seem like Christ­mas morn­ing.

Con­sid­er­ing that ref­er­ees aren’t nor­mally viewed as real people with real emo­tions and real prob­lems, sports fans of­ten over­look the fact that the “zebras” face the same daily chal­lenges as every­one else. They have bills to pay and fam­il­ies to feed, fam­il­ies that they love.

“Every­one likes to yell at the of­fi­cials, but they go home to the same prob­lems as you and me,” said Dolores De­Mayo, Joe’s wife of 36 years. “They’re hu­man be­ings too.”

Con­sid­er­ing refs are lucky to be viewed as hu­mans on a good night, noth­ing could pre­pare Joe and Dolores for the over­whelm­ing surge of sup­port that began to flow their way dur­ing the fam­ily’s darkest time.

The De­May­os, of Somer­ton, are the par­ents of four grown chil­dren ran­ging in age from 23 to 32. Their third child, Mike, 28, has been deal­ing with kid­ney is­sues from the time he was 3 months old. At age 4, he re­ceived his first kid­ney trans­plant from Joe, which las­ted for 12 years. When that kid­ney failed, Mike re­ceived his second kid­ney a short time later. That or­gan came from a stranger who was killed in a car crash and las­ted for al­most six years be­fore it began to fail. Now, Mike is hop­ing for a third trans­plant, and he con­tin­ues to re­ceive dia­lys­is treat­ments three days a week. On top of that, he is re­cov­er­ing from re­cent re­con­struct­ive knee sur­gery (doc­tors had to first break Mike’s leg to fix it), as the ren­al fail­ure has wreaked hav­oc on his bones and joints. He’s also had to have 16 of his teeth re­moved.

Then, in April, things went from worse to cata­stroph­ic. The couple’s eld­est son, 32-year-old Joey, had to be taken to the hos­pit­al after not feel­ing well for months. He, too, was suf­fer­ing from kid­ney fail­ure and needs a trans­plant of his own. As he awaits a donor, Joey also re­ceives dia­lys­is treat­ments three days a week. 

“It’s a way to live, but it’s not a good life,” Dolores said. “They haven’t re­ceived a ter­min­al dia­gnos­is, and they are alive, but it’s no way for a young per­son to live.”

“It’s a qual­ity of life is­sue,” Joe ad­ded. “To go through it once with one kid is one thing, but twice…”

Aside from a few small, cor­rect­able kid­ney an­om­alies with two of Dolores’ sis­ters, there is no his­tory of kid­ney prob­lems on either side of the fam­ily. It seems to be one of those cruel, ran­dom, un­ex­plained things that just … happened.

“After Joey’s dia­gnos­is, I was numb for a month,” Dolores said. “You learn to ac­cept it and hope things will be all right. We have each oth­er, and every­one’s alive, and we’re go­ing to deal with whatever comes along.”

“We have to keep our strength and lead by ex­ample, be­cause if we fall apart, every­one falls apart,” Joe said. “But it ab­so­lutely breaks your heart. They’re your chil­dren. All you can do is listen to their an­ger and con­vince them to­mor­row will be bet­ter than today, and the next day will be bet­ter than to­mor­row. At the end of the day, my boys are alive, and I have the be­ne­fit of en­joy­ing them every day.”

And as bru­tally un­for­giv­ing as the life of a col­lege ref­er­ee can be, it’s also a fra­tern­ity, a com­munity that takes care of its own. A story in the May 18 edi­tion of the New York Post brought na­tion­al aware­ness to the De­Mayo fam­ily’s plight; and not a month later, the Phil­adelphia Daily News did the same. The re­sponse was im­me­di­ate, ex­plos­ive and over­whelm­ing.

Count­less let­ters and phone calls came in of­fer­ing help. A few of Joe’s ref­er­ee col­leagues star­ted the Joseph De­Mayo Kid­ney Fight Fund, and dona­tions began to pour in, from friends, coaches, col­leagues and an­onym­ous be­ne­fact­ors.

Around the same time, Lou De­Cree, a long­time loc­al friend of Joe De­Mayo’s, got an idea. A mu­tu­al friend, George Geiss, had told De­Cree about the Daily News story, and De­Cree knew he had to do something. He called De­Mayo on Fath­er’s Day, and asked per­mis­sion to or­gan­ize an event to raise money and aware­ness for Joe’s sons. The fam­ily was ini­tially hes­it­ant, but fi­nally agreed. They have done fine fin­an­cially, but the med­ic­al costs have skyrock­eted for their two sons, who can­not work due to their con­di­tions. With the help of a 13-per­son com­mit­tee (whose mem­bers Joe said “de­serve to be ac­know­ledged for their tire­less hard work”), the word has spread rap­idly, and a be­ne­fit/fund-raiser will be held Fri­day, Nov. 16, for the De­Mayo sons (see box be­low).

“The re­sponse has been un­be­liev­able,” De­Cree said. “My phone rings all day from people I haven’t heard from in years. ‘What can we do? What can we bring?’ With enough pray­ers and a couple of kid­neys, we can get through this to­geth­er.”

And al­though the fam­ily’s plight emerged first in the na­tion­al spot­light be­cause of De­Mayo’s pub­lic job, this is also a com­munity is­sue. The De­May­os are lifelong North­east Phil­adelphi­ans.

“I think the loc­al re­sponse will make my boys feel good,” Joe said. “It will help their men­tal well-be­ing for them to walk around that room and have so many people pat them on the back, let­ting them know they aren’t alone. The com­munity up here is very strong, very tight-knit. It’s a neigh­bor­hood thing. We stick to­geth­er.”

Said Dolores: “Some­times the men­tal­ity creeps in that you’re all alone and nobody cares, so it helps to see oth­er people are be­hind you, fa­cing it with you. It goes bey­ond the bor­ders of Somer­ton. We’ve got a strong com­munity up here.”

De­Cree said 625 tick­ets already have been sold for the Nov. 16 be­ne­fit and items to be auc­tioned con­tin­ue to roll in. De­Cree poin­ted out that he ran in­to le­gendary Temple bas­ket­ball coach John Chaney at a high school foot­ball game, and Chaney had donated auto­graphed items by the next day.

And yes, money can­not buy two new kid­neys, but it can help al­le­vi­ate some of Joe and Mike’s suf­fer­ing while they wait for the phone to ring. A home dia­lys­is ma­chine could make life so much easi­er for the young men, who can­not live nor­mal lives be­cause of their con­di­tion. Not only can they not work, but the situ­ation has im­pacted everything from their di­ets to so­cial lives.

“Man could nev­er cre­ate what God cre­ated in a kid­ney,” said Dolores, who com­pared the com­plic­ated in­tric­a­cies of the kid­neys to soph­ist­ic­ated “mini-com­puters.”

The Nov. 16 event should be so enorm­ous in scale, to the point where Dolores is already won­der­ing how the fam­ily can use some of the pro­ceeds raised to help rouse aware­ness for oth­er kid­ney donors in need of help. The whole out­pour­ing of sup­port has mo­tiv­ated her to “pay it for­ward,” as she said. 

“This isn’t just a fund-raiser as much as it’s meant to be in­form­a­tion­al,” Joe said, not­ing there would be in­form­a­tion booths where people could sign up for donor cards. “God will­ing, someone else may get a kid­ney out of this, too. If that’s the case, then this was a suc­cess. If you can give back, then please, give back.”

It re­mains to be seen what will hap­pen to Mike and Joey De­Mayo, but what is more clear is that they have hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of al­lies in their corner. The re­la­tion­ships Joe De­Mayo has built in his life as a “no frills, no BS, what-you-see-is- what-you-get type of guy” are cer­tainly the root of the sup­port, but the fam­ily still needs help. And make no mis­take about it, the De­May­os are ap­pre­ci­at­ive and humbled by every per­son who has reached out to help.

“It’s over­whelm­ing, and re­as­sur­ing,” Dolores said. “It’s an ex­ample, I think, of how we all sur­vive. We’re all at­tached in one big web, with hands reach­ing out in so many dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions to of­fer help and sup­port. Those hands reach­ing out, it keeps the web strong. It keeps us strong.” ••

How to help …

The De­Mayo Fam­ily Be­ne­fit will be held Fri­day, Nov. 16, at the Loc­al 692 Sprink­ler Fit­ters Hall (14002 McN­ulty Road) from 8 p.m. to mid­night. Tick­ets are $40, but will not be sold at the door. To pur­chase a tick­et, con­tact Lou De­Cree at 215-620-2270 or lou­de­cree@com­

To donate money, send checks (made pay­able to “Friends of the De­Mayo Fam­ily”) to Friends of the De­Mayo Fam­ily, P.O. Box 11511, Phil­adelphia, PA 19116, or vis­it www.friend­softhedemay­ofam­

To donate an auc­tion item, con­tact George Geiss at hlines­

Sports ed­it­or Ed Mor­rone can be reached at 215-354-3035 or em­or­

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