A gift that saved his life

By Jessica Barzilay

This year, jazz director Shawn Costantino’s father gave him the best birthday gift he could have imagined — a kidney. On Oct. 25, two days after a quiet family celebration, Costantino underwent kidney transplant surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

“It was scary, but it was also kind of the best birthday ever because I woke up feeling better,” Costantino said.

The surgery treated Costantino for Focal Segmental Glomerularsclerosis, a kidney disease he contracted while playing saxophone on a cruise ship during college. He was suffering from an ear infection at the time that damaged his kidney function. The antibiotics he was prescribed worsened the condition. FSGS causes scarring of the glomeruli, which filters blood in the kidney, according to the University of North Carolina Kidney Center. As a result of the disease, the kidney muscle atrophies, allowing dangerously unfiltered blood to circulate. Costantino has monitored his blood levels with the help of a nephrologist for over a decade, but last year test results first indicated the need for a transplant, as only about 10 percent of his kidney muscle was still functioning.

His father was the first of several of Costantino’s family members to volunteer as kidney donor immediately upon the diagnosis. Both his mother, Anne, and father, Nick, spent over a month living with Costantino and his wife, middle school dance teacher Carrie Green-Costantino ’99, at first to help his father recover and then to support Costantino during his healing period.

An outpouring of support helped him throughout his recovery and medical leave, Costantino said. Immediately after the procedure, Green-Costantino started her husband on a strict physical and dietary regimen.

“Since my wife is a dancer and a fitness freak, it was decided that I would make a fast recovery,” Costantino said. “Within four hours of when I woke up, she had me walking around the hospital. She went from wife to personal trainer.”

During his bed rest, members of the school community and the jazz program flocked to Costantino’s side to show their support and enrich his recovery with music, making it as stress-free as possible. From the faculty came flowers, balloons, iTunes gift cards and presents. From his students came cards and visits. And from the parents came a food train, delivering daily meals to the Costantinos’ doorstep throughout his recovery.

“It was really uplifting to know that besides my family, there were people treating me like family,” Costantino said. “I think that’s a big reason why so many teachers stay here for their entire career, knowing that people care about you so much. They stopped what they were doing and helped.”

“The school and both Mr. C’s and my students’ families were so supportive, caring and involved,” Green-Costantino said. “I firmly believe Mr. C would not have recovered as well and quickly as he did were it not for this kind of support.”

Natalie Freedman (Chris ’12) coordinated the food delivery through a website called lotsahelpinghands.com. After communicating with Green-Costantino, Freedman posted grocery lists that followed the doctor’s nutritional guidelines.

“Originally, we started this so that Green-Costantino didn’t need to be worried and could just focus on taking care of Shawn,” Freedman said. “It was about creating a caring community. You didn’t have to bother the family or the patient.”

In addition to compiling a list of acceptable foods, the parents, led by Freedman, organized all the deliveries, Green-Costantino said.

“The generous groceries that were provided to us every day by H-W families not only lifted the burden of grocery shopping for me, but it enabled me to cook quality fresh food for Mr. C. every day,” Green-Costantino said.

Costatino’s substitute Rymvidas Paulikas kept the jazz program up to high standards, Costantino said. To Noah Weinman ’12, a saxophonist in Jazz Explorers, this level of play comes from Costantino’s musical flexibility.

“He really gets the point when it comes to playing,” Weinman said. “Some teachers try to make sure you hit everything just for the sake of hitting everything, but Mr. C. has a real approach to jazz. He gets at what matters.”

Green-Costantino left the dance program in the hands of her co-worker Kathleen Davidson.

“I could really focus on being a good nurse for Mr. C.,” she said.

Aside from diet, fitness was a huge part of the recovery. Costantino said his wife was instrumental in setting him on the right track to a healthy lifestyle.

“She’s kind of a rock star,” he said.

The couple jogs, lifts weights and rides bikes together.

“Now Mr. C is way faster than I am,” Green-Costantino said.

Costantino led his first jazz performance March 9 and 10 and traveled to South America with the jazz players over spring break.

He is currently preparing his students for their upcoming spring jazz concert April 27.

“We are just so grateful to so many people for helping us through this challenging time,” Green-Costantino said.

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