Major League Effort: Cole, Lafayette

Theresa Johnston
Wednesday, May 11, 2011

On a warm summer evening last year, 12-year-old Cole Combi of Lafayette took the mound at the Oakland Coliseum. The occasion was Donate Life Night with the A’s, and Cole—a two-time kidney transplant recipient and big-time sports enthusiast—had the honor of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Cheering from the VIP stands were his transplant doctors and nurses, along with five other kids who’d had transplants or were awaiting them.

Besides being a fun occasion, the event raised $12,000 for the Social Services Transplant Fund. The fund is an important source of support for needy families, and covers basic living expenses while their children receive treatment at Packard.

The A’s game was not the only fundraiser spearheaded by Cole’s parents. Last year the couple hosted a Mexican fiesta and auction in a neighbor’s restored barn that netted $22,000 for Packard’s new dialysis center. Another time they ran 200 miles with friends, from Calistoga to Santa Cruz, to educate people about the importance of organ donation.

John Kerner, MD, professor of pediatrics and medical director of the nutrition support team, is one of several Packard physicians who have been bowled over by Rob and Carla Combi’s generosity. “It’s awesome, seriously,” says Kerner, who treats many of the Hospital’s young liver transplant patients. “What this family has undertaken for organ donor awareness is light years ahead of what anyone else I know has done. They should be commended big-time.

The eldest of three children, Cole was born with a blocked urethra that caused his urine to back up, damaging both of his kidneys. His first transplant, using one of his mother’s kidneys, was performed by Packard surgeon Oscar Salvatierra, MD, when he was barely a year old. When Cole was 7 his body began to reject that graft, and he was put on the transplant list again.
“The second time around we sent out emails to several friends asking for people to volunteer to be tested,” his mother says. “They passed it on to others, and in the end over 200 people were tested. It was an incredible outpouring of support.”

Cole eventually found his new donor—a family acquaintance named Warren Heffelfinger, who’s now a close friend. Since the transplant, “Knock on wood, things have been very quiet,” his mother reports. “Cole is in sixth grade now, his first year in middle school. And he can play sports in the mainstream, which is really great. Basketball is his passion.”

For their next fundraiser, the Combis are planning another barn party, this one to benefit Packard’s 2011 Solid Organ Transplant Camp. The program allows kids like Cole to spend a week away from home each summer, happily spreading their wings and playing ball under the supervision of Packard transplant staff volunteers.