Working and studying at GW is not the only thing shared by sophomore Brian Barbera’s family. They also share kidneys.
A few months ago, Barbera discovered his kidneys were failing and that a transplant would be necessary. He has Alport Syndrome, a genetic disorder that leads to kidney failure in early adulthood.
His older brother, Andrew, who graduated from GW in December with a degree in psychology, was a match and donated his kidney to Brian during winter break.
Brian’s oldest brother, Christopher, also has Alport Syndrome.
When Christopher needed a kidney transplant, their father, Dr. Joseph Barbera, was the donor. Christopher serves as a University Police Department officer, and his father is an associate professor of engineering management and co-directs GW’s Institute for Crisis Disaster and Risk Management.
When it came time for Brian’s operation, Joseph said he felt lucky that there was another able donor within their immediate family.
“We were very fortunate to be able to do it that way,” he said. “We didn’t have to deal with the dialysis and the long wait for a donation from a diseased person or anything like that.”
For Andrew, the decision to give one of his kidneys to his younger brother was not a hard one, he said.
“I never really had any reservations about it,” Andrew said. “He’s my brother, so I figured I’d probably be the best match for tissue and blood and everything.”
Brian was diagnosed with Alport Syndrome when he was born. In addition to kidney failure, the disease is known to cause hearing loss, and Brian has had to wear hearing aids since the first grade.
The disease also causes rapid fatigue, which increases the strain of physical activities. Despite the obstacles his physical condition presented, Brian excelled as an athlete. In high school, he ran varsity track and played varsity lacrosse and soccer. Despite the curve balls it threw at him, his condition was never a hindrance to his passion for sports.
“It was difficult, but it’s something you have to deal with,” Brian said.
College presented a new set of obstacles, and the fast pace of GW life was especially challenging. Keen on continuing his involvement in sports, Brian tried out for the GW men’s club soccer team during his freshman year, but an injury forced him to drop out of the tryouts. Fitting doctor appointments into his college schedule was also a challenge.
“Missing some classes for doctor appointments really takes it toll,” Brian said.
Joseph said the support the family has received from administrators and the greater GW community has been tremendous. When news of the operation reached his colleagues, several offered to substitute for any classes he would have to miss. University President Steven Knapp wrote the Barberas a letter expressing his support for the family.
“As a whole I think every part of GW we touched through this process was very supportive,” Dr. Barbera said.
Brian said he felt surprised by how accommodating the school was to his situation.
“It was actually a lot easier than I thought it was going to be to get everything done,” he said. “Everyone was pretty supportive, which is rare at big colleges.”
A few months after their operation, both Andrew and Brian are in good condition. Brian described the marked difference the transplant has made.
“I feel a lot better than I used to already,” he explained. “Before I had the surgery I didn’t feel good at all, because you have all these toxins in your blood that your kidney is not filtering out.”
Because of the intensity of the operation and longevity of the recovery process, Brian is currently withdrawn from classes for the spring semester. However, he plans on taking courses this summer to catch up on schoolwork. Come next fall, he said he is planning to tryout for the men’s club soccer team again.
Joseph expressed pride in how his family has been able to get through this together.
“I look at all three of my sons as heroes the way they’ve done this and my wife who took care of everything,” he said. “So overall it’s a very positive feeling that we’ve come out of this with everyone feeling well.”