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Man faced scary future, but last Halloween daughter gave him a kidney

JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD 
 Monica Puzz of Vancleave spent last Halloween donating her kidney to her father, Wesley Winterstein. This year he's feeling stronger every day and they plan to celebrate life with a family dinner Sunday.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Monica Puzz of Vancleave spent last Halloween donating her kidney to her father, Wesley Winterstein. This year he's feeling stronger every day and they plan to celebrate life with a family dinner Sunday. SUN HERALD

Halloween was especially scary last year for Wesley Winterstein and his daughter Monica Puzz, so this year they will give thanks early. A family dinner Sunday will celebrate her gift of a kidney and his return to health.

Puzz works at D'Iberville City Hall and works out in the gym he's set up at his home to keep them healthy. Both live in Vancleave.

Growing up the only daughter, "I was his princess," she said. "I just hung on every word he said."

The words that stick with her are "Never say can't."

So on Halloween 2014, after he'd spent more than two years on kidney dialysis, he awoke with her healthy kidney transplanted into him.

It was a big gift. They plan a big celebration this weekend.

"I just love to give," Puzz said. "There's no greater feeling than that you helped someone live longer."

Halloween was especially scary last year for Wesley Winterstein and his daughter Monica Puzz, so this year they will give thanks early. A family dinner Sunday will celebrate her gift of a kidney and his return to health.

She had watched her 14-year-old daughter, Emilee Jane, die of cancer seven years ago. She was not ready to let go of her dad.

Winterstein, 71, had worked at Ingalls and at jobs that took him away from home. Now retired, his diabetes and high blood pressure led to kidney failure. Three days each week he spent 3- 1/2 hours hooked to a dialysis machine.

"At first it was very depressing," he said. The nurses at DaVita in Ocean Springs were very compassionate as they inserted a large No. 14 needle, he said, but he had no quality of life.

Puzz and her older brother were tested to determine if either could be a donor.

"I was a perfect match," she said. The doctors at Ochsner Medical Center in Louisiana couldn't believe the match was so good, but just as they were preparing for the transplant, Winterstein had to have stents inserted in his heart, delaying the transplant for another year.

By then he had persuaded himself not to go through with the transplant.

"I've lived a good life," he rationalized. He didn't want his daughter to undergo surgery or take the risk to give up a kidney.

She usually calls him Pops, and he said, "When she calls me Daddy I know she's serious."

She told him, "Daddy, now you're going to get your kidney."

They checked into Oschner early last Halloween. The doctors had cautioned them, "It's not always a happy story,"

For them it was.

Winterstein and wife, Elaine, have been married 50 years. She had both her husband and her daughter in surgery at the same time, an adult autistic son to care for and the members of three churches praying for a good outcome.

He is PawPaw to Puzz's three kids and she didn't tell him before the surgery that her children were extremely scared.

"I think they learned something from this and my nephew, too," she said. "We all know life is short. We all say that. But until you're faced with it, you don't realize that."

After surgery, they awoke in recovery and their gurneys were placed side by side. He still gets emotional as he recalls gazing over at her, knowing she gave her kidney for him.

"You know, it started working in just a few hours," he said. Although he will take anti-rejection medicine for the rest of his life, he said, "every day I feel stronger." Strong enough to man the barbecue Sunday and join his family in their celebration of life.

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