Stonington — Five years ago this morning, 11-year-old Zachary Abbett was wheeled into an operating room at Hartford Hospital to receive a new kidney.
In the operating room next to him was Tia DeWick of New London, who had read in The Day three months earlier that Zachary needed a new kidney and decided to donate one of hers even though she had never met him.
It took seven hours of painstaking surgery for doctors to remove DeWick's kidney, sew two of its small arteries together and then implant the kidney behind Zachary's right hipbone. Seconds after it was connected, the new kidney began to function.
Today, Zachary is a sophomore at Stonington High School and his transplanted kidney is working just fine.
“Overall I'm good. When I hit 5 feet we celebrated,” said Zachary, whose growth had been stunted by his failing kidneys.
He adds that he's now 5 feet, 51/4 inches tall.
Since his surgery, Zachary's parents have split up, he wears braces to help him walk and he faces mounting medical bills.
Doctors have declared him legally blind because of a damaged optic nerve that has diminished his depth perception, peripheral vision and ability to distinguish some colors.
“There's no way to know how bad it will get,” said his mother Laura.
Still Zachary is undaunted. He wants to be a professional photographer someday.
“Everyone's against me on that one because I'm legally blind,” he said.
Everyone except his sister Amber, who gave him her old digital camera, and his mother, who has managed to keep a positive outlook in the face of her father's death, concerns about her son's health and losing Zachary's disability payments because she works two jobs to make ends meet.
“We're scraping by, but we still have a roof over our heads. It's always one thing after another and you wonder 'When am I going to catch a break?' ” she said while sitting in her small Bradley Street apartment with Zachary and Amber. “But life has to go on, and I have these two nuts to keep me going.”
Laura Abbett said she's not heard from DeWick in some time but would love to see her again.
“There's not a day that goes by that I don't think of her,” she said.
She also said that many people are under the incorrect assumption that a child's serious illness brings families together.
“That's not always true,” she said. “You have all these different stresses and people go in different directions.”
While Zachary is on schedule to graduate in 2008, Laura Abbett said it often takes her son two hours to do an assignment that might take another student 20 minutes to do. He has to use large print books or those on tape. Zachary said one of his favorite courses has been introduction to chemistry.
Before his surgery, one of Zachary's major problems was that he could not keep his food down. That's no longer a problem. His mother said he “eats like a horse.” He still has to take 11 medications a day and has to go to Hartford Hospital for periodic checkups.
With all the Abbetts have been through and are still facing, they have turned their attention toward helping Pete Logan, a Pawcatuck man awaiting his second lung transplant.
The Abbetts had originally planned to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Zachary's kidney transplant, but decided to turn the event into a fund-raiser to help both Logan and the National Kidney Foundation.
“I saw Pete Logan in the paper and it broke my heart,” Laura Abbett said. “We've been blessed with Zachary's health, and so many people helped us I thought this would be a way to give back to the community and help someone else.”
The fund-raiser, featuring performances by six bands from Connecticut, Boston and New York, will be held from 4 to 10 p.m. Friday at the Pawcatuck VFW on Route 1, just east of the high school. Admission is $8 per person.