By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — A bear of a man, Larry Janacaro is as tough as they come.
Five times he’s been anointed, expecting to die. His doctors seven years ago even told his wife Patti of 43 years, and his two grown children, Annette Shelton and Joe Janacaro, to say their last good-bye and to discuss taking Larry off life support.
But as tough as he is, he was no match for Annette.
On April 2, Annette Shelton, principal of Kearney Middle School who will always be her daddy’s little girl, gave her 64-year-old father the most precious gift possible — more years of life through the donation of one of her kidneys.
Less than three weeks later, Larry struggled to find words to express his emotions, as he, Patti and Annette sat in the newly renovated chapel at St. Pius X High School, alma mater to all three as well as son, Joe.
“It’s humbling,” he said. “As any parent can appreciate, I was not in favor of this at all.”
But such self-sacrifice was exactly the way he and Patti raised their two children. And when push came to shove, Annette pushed the hardest.
It was an easy decision for her to make, she said. She wasn’t ready to lose her dad. But even more important, she wasn’t ready for her two daughters, Mary Kate, 16, and Emilee, 13, nor for Joe’s son and daughter, to lose their “Poppa.”
“I did it for my daughters, my niece and my nephew,” Annette said. “Now he has a chance to see them graduate, to see their weddings.”
In fact, she said, her decision was made in 1999, when Larry lost his first kidney to cancer.
“I knew then I was going to do it,” she said. “My brother and I started fighting then over which one of us would donate our kidney.”
As it turned out, 13 years later, Joe Janacaro was put on medication that rendered him ineligible to donate the organ. But Annette doesn’t see it that way.
“I won the fight,” she said.
Annette seldom loses an argument, even with her father. When his remaining kidney began to fail, Larry refused to give her the name of the physicians at Kansas University Medical Center who would test her to make sure she was a match.
“Fine,” she told him. “I’ll find out on my own, get tested, and if you won’t take it, I’ll donate my kidney to someone else.”
Game. Set. Match.
Now came the hard part, and it was harder on no one more than Patti.
Not only was her husband, whom she had dated since their senior year at St. Pius X in 1966-67, undergoing a third major surgery in 14 years, so was her only daughter, St. Pius Class of 1990, while she sat in a hospital waiting room.
But this time was different. Patti Janacaro knew she wasn’t alone. She had already felt the powers of the prayers of the legion of friends that Larry had made during a life of service and friendship to others.
That happened in 2006, when doctors discovered a tumor on Larry’s remaining kidney. Overweight and with high blood pressure, he wouldn’t have survived a transplant then, or Annette would have done it then.
Surgeons instead removed the tumor and a portion of the kidney, but the surgery threw Larry into a coma that lasted six weeks — beginning on Mardi Gras and lasting until Easter Sunday, 2006.
That was when Patti was told that her husband was dying.
“They told everybody who came to say good-bye,” she said. “I said good-bye to him so many times during that Lent.”
Through that Lenten season seven years ago, Larry’s legion of friends also bombarded heaven with prayers. And they turned Larry’s room in the intensive care unit into a virtual shrine, filling it with rosaries, medals, and even a relic of St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower.
There is example Patti will never forget.
“Joe got a call from a man who said, ‘You don’t know me, but I know your father. He had faith in me when no one else did. Can I come and pray?’” Patti said.
The next day, after doctors told Patti that the decision to take Larry off life support was imminent because Larry’s body was no longer producing white blood cells to fight off infection and his fever had reached 104, Chuck Bird arrived with a team of “Prayer Warriors” from the Christian Fellowship Baptist Church. They gathered around Larry’s bed and prayed in a way Patti had never heard before.
“One of the men started off reading Scripture. Then each man took his turn praying out loud,” Patti would later write in “Prayer Did It,” a book about her husband’s near-death experience.
“They were talking to God as if He were right there. The men called God the Master Physician, and they wanted Him to heal Larry right now,” she wrote. “They prayed with urgency and with such confidence. It was very comforting.”
Seven years later, Patti recalled that moment like it happened that day. And she’ll never forget what happened the following day.
Annette, Joe and Patti met with Larry’s physician and expected the worst, that there was no hope, that the time had come for Larry to die.
Instead, the doctor flipped through the latest charts of Larry’s condition and had different news.
“He said, ‘There is no medical explanation for it. He’s improving,’” Patti said.
Indeed, Larry’s body had begun to produce white blood cells, and his partial kidney had begun functioning again, doing its job to remove toxins from his body.
“Everything about his health was perfect,” Patti said. “The doctors still call him ‘The Miracle Man.’”
Given a new lease, Larry began to hit the gym to bring his weight and his blood pressure down. Over time, he would lose 95 pounds.
He still needed dialysis, up to three times a week. But always religious, Larry also doubled down on his Catholic faith.
An officer of the Community Bank of Raymore, Larry would spend entire nights on dialysis at North Kansas City Hospital. Then he would wake up before dawn, leave the hospital and drive on his way to work to St. Thomas More Parish in south Kansas City, where he would attend daily Mass at 6:15 a.m.
But the routine of dialysis was taking its toll.
“It really beats you up,” Larry said. “After a while, your body begins to wear out.”
Early this year, it was time for Larry to accept Annette’s gift. He had no choice but to accept. She was merely obeying the way that Larry and Patti had raised both her and Joe.
“He always told us, ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated,’” Annette said. “If you go to any of my classes and ask them one thing I taught them, they would say, ‘Treat others the way you want to be treated.’ It comes from him.”
“I got that from my mother. She was raised in Okmulgee, Okla. That was (Ku Klux) Klan territory and her family had two strikes against them. They were Italian and Catholic. Her father was a boot maker and he was burned out by the Klan because he was teaching blacks how to make shoes,” Larry said.
He also learned another lesson from the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth who taught him from grade school through St. Pius X High School.
“From the time I was in grade school, we had been told that from those whom much has been given, much is expected,” Larry said. “You are supposed to leave the world a better place than you found it.”
Years before when Annette married her husband Jim, Larry was proud.
But, he said, he was never more proud of her than the day she received her degree in education.
“When she became an educator, I couldn’t have been more proud of her. I knew she was going to make a difference in the world. It’s teachers who make a difference,” Larry said.
“If I can’t help someone else,” Annette said, echoing another of her dad’s lessons, “then why else was I put here?”
Annette’s kidney was a perfect match for her father. As soon as it was transplanted, it began to function so well that Larry no longer needs dialysis.
Doctors told her that she is young and healthy, and should expect no ill effects from functioning with one kidney.
“They haven’t even put me on any special diet,” she said.
But still groggy from her surgery the day after the transplant, Annette received a surprise visitor.
Into her room, dragging a pole holding intravenous fluids that were dripping into his arm, walked her super-tough, bear of a man father.
“I brought your kidney in for a visit,” he told her.
And Annette knew then she had her father back, sense of humor and all.