Kevin Stiner | May 05, 2022
A (s)LIVER of Hope
Many friendships made in college last a lifetime but few, if any, will have the lifelong connection of Rachel Gurgiolo ’20 and Matt Osborne ’20. Although graduation separated Rachel and Matt by hundreds of miles, the friendship forged in their years on Brockport’s campus would turn out to be lifesaving.
Gurgiolo was diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC) and Ulcerative Colitis as a middle schooler in her hometown of Edinburg, Pa. in 2011. Although medication allowed her to thrive for many years, including three seasons on SUNY Brockport’s Gymnastics squad, her condition progressively worsened.
“I knew things were getting worse, but I’m the kind of person to keep pushing.”
“I was either more tired or not sleeping good at night, like itchiness, my eyes were getting yellow,” said Gurgiolo as she described some of her effects from PSC. “I knew things were getting worse, but I’m the kind of person to keep pushing. Because things were starting to get worse, I decided to just coach my senior year on the Brockport gymnastics team. My body just couldn’t handle it anymore and I prioritized my health at that point.”
Despite her condition, she finished out her senior year earning Cum Laude honors with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Only a few college friends were aware of her condition as she kept it close to the vest.
Stage Four Liver Cirrhosis
While the pandemic was shuttering doors, Gurgiolo was encouraged by her doctors, during virtual meetings, to begin looking for potential donors. The sense of urgency progressed quickly when she reached stage four liver cirrhosis, which is when the liver is in such a weakened state that it can no longer function or heal itself. Her search for a viable donor began with family, expanded to close friends and then with no solid match she reluctantly embraced the digital world.
“I saw a post that Rachel had made on Facebook that her disease had progressed and that she was going to need a transplant soon.”
Finding a Match
Osborne reached out to offer support and to see how he could help. He took an at-home blood test but was dejected when their blood types weren’t an exact match because they originally thought that was a requirement. Their fortunes soon turned when Gurgiolo learned that Osborne’s blood type would indeed work.
Disappointment turned to joy when Osborne learned the blood types did not need to match, but there were more steps to validate him as a prospective donor. He began quietly working his way through the pre-evaluation process.
Unbeknownst to Gurgiolo, Osborne drove more than seven hours to Pittsburgh and underwent a three-day series of tests to determine if he would be an approved donor. He went through the pre-op process a day prior to a job interview in Vermont — which was nine hours away.
Osborne kept his identity as the donor secret until about a month before the surgery — when his mother urged him to tell her.
“I randomly got a phone call one day that said, ‘Hey we have a date for your transplant.’ It was ultimate shock. I didn’t even know anyone was lined up in the process.”
“I randomly got a phone call one day that said, ‘Hey we have a date for your transplant,’” explained Gurgiolo. “It was ultimate shock. I didn’t even know anyone was lined up in the process. All of a sudden it was like four weeks until the surgery was planned.”
On the way home from a meal, Gurgiolo received a text message from Osborne that revealed he was in fact the donor. Gurgiolo’s parents were ecstatic with the match because not only was he a friend, but he was also the same age, healthy, active, and fit.
“I’m very thankful that I met her and I think I told her before, when I first toured Brockport, I had a feeling that is where I was supposed to go to school,” said Osborne, who wrestled multiple seasons for the Golden Eagles. “Now I know why I was meant to go to Brockport. I was meant to meet Rachel and help her with this.”
“Two Most Important Days in Your Life”
In November of 2021, Gurgiolo and Osborne successfully underwent the live liver transplant. When they both woke from surgery, Osborne offered a quote that perfectly fit the moment, “Mark Twain once said, ‘The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.’”
Gurgiolo is in her second year of a three-year accelerated pharmacy program at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM). She also shared that her new liver is helping her sleep much better and she’s able to concentrate better while studying. She’s excited for her fresh start.
Osborne is pursuing a career in law enforcement and is presently working for a moving company.
A check-up in February shed positive light on the operation. Both livers are more than 90% regenerated.