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New York City
December 2002

Michael DiPiano: Teacher, Coach, Transplant Recipient
By Tom Kertes

These days, messages such as “follow your dreams,” “have a positive attitude,” or “you can accomplish anything if you just work hard” are so commonplace that they often seem trite. Except, of course, when they come from a man like Michael DiPiano.

DiPiano has been the Athletic Director at St. Benedict Preparatory School in Newark, New Jersey since 1976 and, for 20 years, was also the school’s wrestling coach. He’s had severe diabetes since the age 17 and, as a result, had a kidney and pancreas transplant in 1997.

“I did not grow up with the illness and that made it even tougher for me to deal with it at such a difficult age,” he says. “The first thing I tell people these days is not to neglect their illness just because they’re young and feel invincible. It’s not about being young and strong. It’s not about taking a little extra insulin, as I was told so often. It’s about taking care of yourself early on so you won’t have the pay the price later . . . as I did.”

DiPiano had to have a toe amputated at the age of 40, developed kidney failure, suffered from brittle bones, was in a cast for four months, and needed diabetes-related retinal surgery which later caused cataracts. Before his transplant, he fell in a coma “right after returning from working as a volunteer at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. They didn’t know whether I had pneumonia or Legionnaire’s Disease. Fact is, diabetes is an illness that affects just about all of your organs,” he says. Still, DiPiano’s indomitable spirit wouldn’t allow the disease to change his lifestyle, much less to conquer him as a person. St. Benedict fields teams in 13 sports; they’re often nationally ranked in basketball, soccer, and fencing. DiPiano himself was a champion wrestler, first at Orange County Community College, then at Montclair State, while injecting insulin into his body several times every day. He accomplished all of this while a number of doctors were telling him that he’d have to abandon athletics completely. “I was not going to give up just like that,” he says with a smile. “So I searched, and searched until I found a doctor who told me otherwise.”

DiPiano’s athletic background ended up serving him well throughout his illness. “Even though I was sick, I was never sickly,” he says. “The relatively good physical condition I was in made me an excellent candidate for the organ transplants. And I was told that it also made the operation itself unusually successful.” The rigors of doing sports at a high level also put DiPiano into a frame of mind that proved extremely helpful. “Three times a week, I’d go through dialysis in the morning from 6-10, then go to work,” he says. “But there were people there on Mondays who could only think about going through this procedure again on Wednesday. They’d be extremely depressed—the place was like a morgue.”

“So I’d find myself coaching there as well, trying to get them in a positive frame of mind and telling them not to waste their lives worrying about things they couldn’t control.”

DiPiano feels that organ donation is extremely essential but much misunderstood by the general public. “People are afraid of all kinds of silly stuff, such as not being kept alive when they’re sick or that their organs might be taken before they die,” he says. “That’s nonsense, of course. The truth is, organ donation is one of the most important things you can do. It quite literally saves lives.

“I have the pancreas of a 21 year-old kid who died in a car accident. It cured my diabetes. I thank him silently every day. I would not be alive without him—and I feel that I keep part of him alive.”

When Di Piano received the National Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame Medal of Courage Award, he spoke of his donor family. “That’s real courage,” he said in his acceptance speech. “Do you have that kind of courage? And if you do, what are going to do about it?”

Through his experience, positive attitude and generosity, DiPiano has kind of become everybody’s Dad at St. Benedict. “My son succeeded me as the Wrestling Coach here,” he says. “That’s a real thrill. But you should see my house on Father’s Day. Literally dozens of kids from the school come over to the house or call.”

“If anyone wants to get in contact with me to talk about diabetes, or organ donation or whatever may be on their mind, please e-mail me at mdipiano@sbp.org. A growing awareness about these things is very, very important. So I’ll be more than happy to share my experiences with any person who wants information.”#

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