Photo by John Wilcox
Arlington restaurant owner Ricardo Mermet saw more than a hero in Vietnam vet and war amputee Karl D. Chapin of Grafton. He saw his guardian angel.
Until Tuesday, Mermet, a native of Argentina who co-owns Tango restaurant with his wife, Nancy, was in desperate need of a new kidney. Years of diabetes and hypertension had taken their toll, and Mermet had spent the last 18 months undergoing thrice-weekly sessions of dialysis while his name sat unmoved on the national organ donation list (UNOS).
Chapin, 59 is a decorated amputee who lost his right hand at Hamburger Hill in Vietnam. He came across Mermet's plea for a kidney on matchingdonors.com, a Canton-based Web site that matches donors with patients in need of transplants.
After a series of hurdles and months of screening at Massachusetts General Hospital, Chapin finally donated his left kidney to Mermet, 61, on Tuesday. By Wednesday, Mermet was up and about, feeling better than he had in years, he said.
"This guy showed me that we have nice people in the world," Mermet said. "It's unbelievable because he didn't know me. He's like my angel."
Chapin said he was inspired to donate his kidney after coming across his old organ donor card from 1973.
"I started doing research, and I found out that living organs have a much better chance of adaptablility than a cadaver donor," he said.
When quick search of the site led him to Mermet's page, Chapin knew right away he'd found his recipient.
"I knew it had to be," he said. "This man was dying, and somebody had to do something or he's not going to see his next grandchild. I just felt very attached to this man. I don't know why, I just did."
But getting to the operating table wasn't easy. Very early in the screening process, a doctor taking note of Chapin's disability told him that he "had done enough for his country" and refused to approve the donation, Chapin said.
"I took it personally. But I also took offense for every veteran, disabled or not. The battle was on."
After months of phone calls and meetings with surgeons and specialists, Chapin found another doctor willing to sign the approval.
"With all the highs and lows, and yeses and nos and maybes, we got a date, June 17," Chapin said.
When asked which kidney he'd like to donate, he said, "Doc, you gotta take the left, because that's the one I've been teaching Spanish to.' " he joked.
"The operation was so successful. They've never witnessed a man heal so quickly. As soon as they put the kidney in, it started to function immediately. He was up the next day and came to see me. He's just a sweet, sweet man."
Mermet said he can't wait to start working regular hours at the restuarant again and plans to travel to Argentina soon - a trip he took annually before falling ill.
"It's unbelievable," Mermet said. "This guy is incredible. It was a perfect kidney. The first day with this, right away I get out of bed."
Modern science has been good to Chapin, too. In May, the retired accounts receivable manager was the recipient of one of the world's first bionic hands - the i-LIMB Hand - made by Hanger Inc. in Leominster. For the first time in 40 years, he has been able to flex his fingers, shake hands and gracefully handle objects. The i-LIMB hit the market in 2007 and costs $55,000.