Brett Epps, who never met Marisa, but like many others has been inspired by her life, recently turned a song he carried in his heart following her untimely passing into a musical tribute (a link to the song is provided below).
Eight days before Marisa received her new heart, Brett, a Perth Amboy native and the winningest wrestler in Rutgers Prep history, underwent a life-saving transplant surgery of his own, receiving a kidney from his fiancé.
The love story of Brett and Alixandra Cirigliano, who were wed 10 months later, is the most compelling Marisa’s father, Greg, a reporter with the Home News Tribune, has ever been privileged to write.
Those unfamiliar with the story, which can be found in its entirety below, may want to consider giving it a read.
Greg, who first met Brett more than a decade ago through his work as a sports writer, fully understood the difficult life with which Brett was dealing prior to transplant.
Greg’s father, who died in 2010, lived for 13 years with complete renal failure and survived that time with the help a kidney dialysis machine like that which kept Brett alive until Alixandra gave him the gift of life.
A talented songwriter with a mellifluous voice, Brett, who has been writing music for years, and his younger brother, Kacy, who created the beat for the tribute to Marisa, collaborated on Taught Me to Fly (Brett also designed the cover art for his YouTube post of the song).
The lyrics, some of which, including the refrain, can be found below, are written from Marisa’s perspective in heaven as she watches over her parents.
Sending you some hugs now
Sending all my love down, too
I know it isn’t easy
It’s not easy for the two of you
And even though I’ve flown away
You gave me the strength to be unafraid
And that’s so much more than anyone can say
Don’t hold onto the pain of yesterday
You don’t need to cry when you’re all alone
I walk close by your side
All of the love that you gave to me
I keep it with me inside
You taught me to fly
Lifted me up when I was feeling down
You taught me to fly
When you see the sun rise I’m around
I sing with the angels now
GREG’S JUNE 30, 2016 STORY ABOUT BRETT AND ALIXANDRA
In the same hospital where four weeks prior she received an engagement ring and a wedding proposal from the man whose life she wanted to save, Alixandra Cirigliano leaned across a bed at Carolina Medical Center to kiss Brett Epps, who hours earlier received her kidney.
Wearing matching powder blue gowns following a successful kidney transplant operation at the North Carolina hospital, the couple was reunited on Wednesday shortly after Cirigliano’s kidney was removed and transplanted into Epps’ body.
“My reaction was just, ‘Wow!,’” said Epps’ father, Kurt. “Here she comes in, a couple hours after surgery, and walks across the room to kiss the guy whose life she saves. You don’t have words for that.
“This is a story of faith and strength and family, but it’s really a story about the power of love.”
A 28-year-old Perth Amboy native and former Rutgers Prep wrestling star who remains the winningest grappler in school history, Epps was diagnosed in October 2014 with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a rare disease characterized by scarring in the part of the kidney that filters blood. He and Alixandra started dating just one month earlier.
The long nights of Epps giving himself dialysis treatments for nine hours every evening appear to be over.
“The kidney took immediately and worked superbly, and it’s still working superbly,” Kurt Epps said. “After the doctor came in and he said everything was OK, I got up and gave him a big hug, and then I left the room and I went (elsewhere) to be by myself to let out two years of frustration.”
Two previous attempts at a kidney transplant for Brett failed. The first resulted last July in the near death of a donor on the operating table. The second, which was scheduled for June 1, at which time Epps proposed to Cirigliano in the hospital room, was postponed hours after the couple were engaged because Epps’ blood pressure spiked perilously high.
“This is going to be Independence Day in more than one way,” Kurt Epps said of the upcoming July 4 holiday, referring to Brett no longer being tethered to a dialysis machine.
The grueling process of cleansing the blood nightly took its toll physically and emotionally on Epps, who considered the machine a blessing and previously said he would rather continue dialysis than put the woman he wants to marry at risk.
Cirigliano, who began dating Epps around the time of his diagnosis 19 months ago, said from the onset she wanted to give him one of her kidneys, but he refused the offer believing it was his responsibility to protect her. Epps works with Cirigliano at Verizon as the manager of a team of sales representatives in Charlotte, where the couple met.
“I don’t care if I have to keep going on dialysis,” Brett Epps told Cirigliano, who ultimately convinced him to accept her gift of love.
“She said, ‘We want to spend the rest of our lives together,’ ” Brett Epps recalled, noting Cirigliano added that without her kidney in his body, “ ‘We might not have our lives together.’ ”
Knowing the backstory of Epps’ engagement to Cirigliano, hospital staff arranged for the couple’s recovery rooms to be directly across the hall from one another. They were in adjacent pre-op rooms numbered 21 and 22, with the latter coincidentally being the jersey number Epps wore while playing baseball, football and lacrosse as a young athlete.
Kurt Epps said Brett awoke Thursday morning in discomfort, but that he already was sitting in a chair and doctors hoped to have Brett walking by the end of the day.
According to the Living Kidney Donor Network, approximately 5,000 of the more than 93,000 people waiting for a kidney transplant in the United States will die annually (survival rates are significantly greater for transplants from living donors than cadavers), as the life expectancy of a middle-aged man on dialysis does not exceed eight years.
Of the countless people wanting to donate to Epps, including his younger brother Cody and Rutgers Prep head wrestling coach Mike Lamb, who were both deemed unsuitable, the perfect match ended up being Cirigliano.
“He’s asking for her hand (in marriage), she’s giving him her kidney,” Kurt Epps said days before the couple were engaged. “It’s mind-boggling, in a way. It’s kind of like the perfect love story. For him to find his love match is one thing. For him to find the person that helps save his life is another. Through this (transplant) they are bound forever. It’s more than just spiritual.”
A three-time Somerset County Tournament champion and third-place Prep National Tournament finisher, Epps graduated in 2006 from Rutgers Prep.
His younger brothers, Cody (Class of ‘12) and Kacy (Class of ‘09), who also starred at Rutgers Prep, combining with Brett to win 255 bouts, created a Facebook page at the time of Brett’s diagnosis to spread the word that he was looking for a living donor.
Fittingly titled, “Wrestling My Toughest Opponent Ever,” the page generated prospective donors including those from New Jersey’s tight-knit high school wrestling community, which rallied around Epps’ cause. Each of the past two seasons, scholastic grapplers across the state have sported “Battling for Brett” T-shirts.
“I’m pursuing a living donation because a kidney from a living donor lasts about twice as long as one from a deceased donor, and the wait for a deceased donor could be five to 10 years,” Brett wrote on his Facebook page at the time of his diagnosis when his kidneys were functioning at just 13 percent. “I am telling my story in the hope that those who visit here will share it, and hopefully, someone will be willing to be my living donor. What it takes to be a donor is simply love. You are giving the gift of life to someone — someone you may not even know. But you will know you saved someone’s life. I’d like to be your someone.”
Brett Epps said Cirigliano “never complains about” his medical condition and that “it’s been a huge help having support like that.”
“She came into my life,” he said, “for a reason.”