A real-life organ donor tells her story in ‘I’m Just Kidneying’

3 minute read
Amanda Nicastro tells a tale of two kidneys at the Adrienne in May. (Image courtesy of PHIT.)
Amanda Nicastro tells a tale of two kidneys at the Adrienne in May. (Image courtesy of PHIT.)

You can call Amanda Nicastro lots of things: writer, producer, comedian. You can also call her hero, courtesy of a kidney she donated in 2014 — but she’d rather you didn’t.

Nicastro’s organ donation, and the complicated feelings and experiences that resulted, inspired I’m Just Kidneying, a solo comedic performance coming to Philly Improv Theater (PHIT) this month.

When surgery tickles the funny bone

“As I was going through the evaluation process to determine if I could be a living donor, a lot of funny things just kept happening to me — so I wrote them down,” says Nicastro. She then took that material and turned it into a 30-minute solo piece for a New York City festival in 2014. Now, I’m Just Kidneying is an hourlong performance that Nicastro has produced multiple times across the country.

“It was harder for me to write some of the more poignant moments of the show,” Nicastro says. “The comedic parts came naturally. My first draft was a little devoid of anything a little more heartfelt and my first director, Frankie Johnson, thought it would be a good idea to add more insight into my relationship with my sister, Brenna. It made the show infinitely better.”

“The latest incarnation of the show that audiences in Philadelphia are about to see has some new comedic material, but it also has more of a direct message about our nation's organ shortage,” she says.

Kidney swap

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 20 people die each day while waiting for a transplant. More than 100,000 people are currently on an organ transplant wait list as of August 2017 — almost 2,000 of them children under 18.

“Folks who didn’t know anything about organ donation have come up to me and said they never knew they could learn so much while laughing,” Nicastro says. “It also never fails — every time I do a run of the show, I meet someone whose life has been touched by organ donation in some way.”

While most organs are donated postmortem, about four out of every ten donations each year come from living donors — usually friends and family of the person in need. For Nicastro, a direct donation was not possible because she and her sister are not a blood-type match. Instead, they did a paired kidney donation, where an incompatible donor/recipient pair “swap” kidneys with another pair. In other words, Nicastro gave a kidney to someone else in need who matched her blood type. And then, the person who had originally wanted to donate to the patient who received Nicastro’s kidney instead gave a kidney to Nicastro’s sister. In this way, each patient gets a kidney even when the person who originally wanted make the donation is not a match. According to the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Transplant Center, this method enables up to 2,000 additional donations nationwide.

The loudest laugh

Nicastro’s own operation took place at the Carolinas Medical Center’s Transplant Center in North Carolina, where she is originally from. When she brought the show to Charlotte, she invited staff from the center along with her sister to attend.

“My sister and I had this running joke during the lead-up to transplant, which was basically us using various scenarios and saying, ‘Hey, if you die before transplant, you don’t need a kidney anymore.’ We both have a very dark sense of humor so it made us crack up every time,” Nicastro says. “Sometimes I think audience members feel uncomfortable laughing at that joke in the show, but everyone should know it's one of my favorite memories with my sister. And when she saw the show in Charlotte she laughed the loudest.”

Amanda Nicastro’s I’m Just Kidneying is coming to PHIT at the Adrienne Theater (2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia) on Friday, May 25, and Saturday, May 26, at 9pm. Tickets ($12) are available online (and you can register as an organ donor at OrganDonor.gov).

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