IVC Professor gives the greatest gift of all


Many of us find it difficult to live our lives to the fullest. When looking at the statistics on organ donation, even fewer of us realize how easy it is to donate the gift of life.

This is not the case when it comes to Irvine Valley College Professor Amy Caterina, who does both with humor, humility, and compassion that should serve as an example for everyone.

Caterina recently donated one of her kidneys to Mike “Mikie” McGee, husband of her best friend, Andrea Harris. It was not as simple as volunteering and going into surgery; Caterina had to undergo months of testing, while at the same time juggling two teaching positions, several art exhibitions, a recent engagement and a life full of close friends and colleagues that most would envy.

Despite the constant activity, Caterina is surprisingly calm and balanced. We had agreed to meet at a local Santa Ana coffee house and I ran a few minutes late. Rushing across the street lugging briefcase and camera, sweating bullets because I knew she had numerous activities going on that day, I found her calmly reading a book waiting for my arrival. The interview took place in the studio loft she shares with her fiancé, Kevin, and three over-indulged pet rats, where we settled in for two hours, discussing topics ranging from the donor process to her philosophy of life.

Surprisingly, Caterina is frank and unpretentious about her many accomplishments, consistently downplaying her role and crediting others for her what she described as the “best life possible.”

A 1996 graduate of Buffalo State College (BFA, Photography), she obtained her MFA from California State University, Fullerton and immediately began teaching at several local community colleges. Along the way, she has found time to develop an interest in forensic dentistry, and amass a very credible collection of medical instruments, she recently opened her first solo exhibition in Santa Ana at the CSUF Grand Central Art Center.

Lariat: “It’s been less than two months since the surgery took place. How do you feel?”

Caterina: “Absolutely fabulous! There are still issues; you get tired sometimes, and I have a tendency to overdue some of the physical activity, but everyone has been so supportive that I couldn’t have it better. I mean, throughout the entire process everyone from school, my friends, family, Kevin (fiancé) Andrea, Mikie, Alex (at eight, described by Caterina as “my sun and my moon”) has made things so easy for me.”

Come on, in the blog, Andrea writes that things haven’t been as easy for you as you’re telling me.

Well, sure there are tough days. Sometimes, I get phantom pain, like the kidney is still, there, y’know? And occasionally, I get a little overwhelmed with all the things I have to do, want to do, and can’t always find the time to do, and that can be a little depressing. It doesn’t last, though, I’ve got too much support.How’s Mike…sorry, Mikie?

He is doing so great, even the doctors are amazed. After the surgery, he caught an E.coli infection that had the potential to be fatal, but he fought it off and is doing better than anyone could ever have imagined. (Pauses) Of course, he’s so strong and he was in such great shape when he went in for the surgery. Crunches, changing his diet, everything he could to prepare…he really didn’t start to weaken until shortly before the surgery and that was the most critical time. He was sleeping almost all the time then.

I read on the Web site that even though he, Andrea and Alex had built a close relationship, he didn’t want to marry because he knew how ill he was.

(Smiles, shakes head) Yeah, he’s like that, but that got straightened out. Andrea and Alex were already so much of his life. The bonds were way too deep for this to go any other way.

Those bonds seem to go much further than the three of them…Oh, we are family. I mean we were already so close, but this is something that can’t be described, y’know? I mean, Alex is like my child, we have the most incredible relationship. . . and Andrea and I…(pauses to regain composure).

How did this all come about, the donation, the generous nature, what are the roots?

Definitely from my parents. We were raised to respect everyone. My father is the most generous man; he’d give you the shirt off his back. If my mother had five dollars, she’d give you four. And I think my faith too. I practice a lay form of Japanese Buddhism. I believe in karma and the interconnectedness of all things. I mean, I was raised a nice Catholic Italian girl in Niagara Falls! I had my rebel stage, but I found this and it has certainly centered me.

It sounds like there was never a doubt about you doing this (the donation).

At first, I wasn’t considered. My blood type wasn’t the same, at least I thought it wasn’t. In fact I was going to finish this tattoo (points to some very impressive work on her right arm) but, I decided to get my blood type tested and it turned out that I was O-positive, which was a perfect match. The testing finally narrowed things down between two donors, me and someone else, and I said, “Move forward.” I knew I was going to be the one.

Even so, this is a major thing. Are there going to be any long-term effects on your health? Or Mike’s?

No, I should be a 100 percent in a year or so. Mike’s got the most challenges, but, this is better than a truncated life spent on dialysis machine.

Sounds like you’ve become a total advocate of live organ donation.

Absolutely! Do you know how long the waiting lists are? And, as gruesome as it may sound, since the helmet laws went into effect, there has been a tremendous decrease in the number of organs available. Knowing what I know now, I wish I had donated blood…and you can donate bone marrow. How about you?

Actually, I donate platelets every two weeks at the American Red Cross, and I registered as a donor through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Yeah, there’s another one. I mean I can understand that there are certain religious prohibitions, but if you’re not under them, why don’t you register. Do you now how many lives could be improved or saved? People also have to realize that the technology is so good now, that you can do a relatively major donation and be up and about in a week or less. There are so many options, people just need to get out there and act.