West Hempstead native Jessica Venditto says her motto remains, “Every day is a great day,” even though most days are a battle to stay alive.
Venditto was born with pulmonary atresia, a rare disease in which the pulmonary valve, on the right side of the heart, which controls blood flow to the lungs, doesn’t develop. Venditto, now 23, had her first open-heart surgery when she was just 5 five days old, at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City. Although it was successful, she went on to have four more open-heart operations.
Her parents, Debbie and Mike Venditto, said that doctors in New York felt that her most recent surgery, in 2010, was especially risky, because she has only one functioning lung — her left one was punctured during a previous surgery. Her parents worked with doctors at the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, who performed the 14-hour surgery successfully.
“God gave her this for a reason,” Debbie said. “I really feel that. She just touches everyone’s life that she meets.”
Now Jessica needs a heart transplant, because hers is failing. As a result of her ongoing heart problems, last year she developed cirrhosis — a degenerative liver disease in which scar tissue replaces normal, healthy tissue — so she also needs a liver transplant.
Venditto’s parents said that, to their knowledge, no hospital has ever performed both transplants on a patient with one lung. After consulting with doctors at Columbia Presbyterian, the Vendittos agreed that having a heart transplant seemed the safest operation, and they were told that it might rejuvenate their daughter’s damaged liver.
Jessica relocated to the Lurie Children’s Hospital in August, and her mother left her job as a nanny to be with her. “The surgeon here is very confident, so we just pray that the right organ comes,” Debbie said.
She explained that the United Network for Organ Sharing recently changed its criteria for heart transplant patients, saying that people waiting for hearts can no longer stay in the hospital. The policy, which went into effect last month, forced the Vendittos to rent an apartment close to the hospital.
“At first I didn’t want to leave the hospital, because they’ve been like family to us,” Debbie said. “But now that we’re in the apartment, Jessica can get out and get fresh air, so it’s better for her.”
In New York, her father, who has worked for the Town of Hempstead Sanitation District No. 6 for roughly 30 years, recently picked up a second job driving shovel trucks at Adelphi University to help with Jessica’s hospital expenses. Working long hours has been stressful, he said, but because he had worked two jobs in the past, it wasn’t a difficult transition.
“We’ve just been trying to stay positive from the support we got from our family and friends over the years,” Mike said. He added that he and his wife have done much research to find the best doctors for their daughter.
Jessica, who graduated from West Hempstead High School in 2013, is taking online courses at Nassau Community College to earn a degree in medical billing. “I try to stay positive throughout everything and this entire journey,” she said via FaceTime from Chicago.
That mindset, she added, was attributable to her family’s support. Her mother, however, said that her daughter’s love for life is what keeps the family hopeful. “Some days I wake up feeling sad,” Debbie said, “but then I look at her and she just keeps me going.”
“I’m very proud of Jessie,” Mike said. “She’s beaten all the odds. She’s always been optimistic, so how we can we feel bitter if she’s always happy?”
Jessica’s grandmother Ruthann Glass, who accompanied her family to Chicago, said that Jessica was a guardian angel on the Intensive Care Unit floor there. “She went to every room and said hello to the other children,” Glass said. “She made sure that those children were fine, and she even spoke to their parents. She just brightens everyone’s day.”
Lary Cozzolino, a friend of the Vendittos who has known Jessica all her life, said that he and his Christian contemporary band, Eyewitness, have been looking for ways to create a fundraiser for her family. His band, which has held other fundraisers in the past, is collaborating with the Rev. Nelson Kalombo Ngoy, of the Wesley United Methodist Church in Franklin Square, to host a benefit concert on Saturday, which will also be Jessica’s 24th birthday.
When she heard about the event, she said, “I feel so honored, and I know it’s going to be amazing. It means so much to have that kind of support, and I’m so lucky to have all of this wonderful support.”
“We’re trying to lift her up, but I think it’s the opposite,” Cozzolino said, “because she tries to lift up everyone else.”
When a heart donor is found, Jessica said, she would like to meet the family, if they’re willing to do so, and have them listen to their son’s or daughter’s heartbeat.
Debbie said that once Jessica finds a new heart, she hopes to raise awareness about the importance of becoming an organ donor.
Debbie’s longtime friend Dawn D’Agostino-Posporelis started a GoFundMe page last year to support the Venditto family. As of press time, it had raised more than $38,000 of its goal of $50,000. To contribute, go to bit.ly/2D44Lnz.
For more information on Eyewitness’s benefit concert, call (516) 351-1300.