Retired Long Island public servant Tony Jimenez and his family have something special to celebrate this holiday season: The gift of life.
The 69-year-old Vietnam veteran and former Nassau deputy jury commissioner underwent a lifesaving organ transplant a month ago when his niece donated one of her kidneys to him.
The transplant followed an appeal he made in October, when the former Army infantryman and Purple Heart Medal recipient asked the public he had served for years, including as a Glen Cove city councilman, to consider helping him with such a donation.
Jimenez's doctors said he needed a kidney transplant from a live donor because he could have died or his health could have deteriorated too much in the time it would take to get to the top of the state's five to seven year waiting list for a cadaver organ donation.
Jimenez, who no longer needs dialysis with the new kidney, said eight people who read about him in Newsday offered to be potential donors. But in the end, the Glen Cove man found a match closer to home.
On the morning of Nov. 30, he and niece Julianne Jimenez, 31, of Centerport, met at North Shore University Hospital before both underwent surgeries so she could give one of her kidneys to him.
"What an angel," the uncle said Monday, while seated next to his smiling niece in his Glen Cove home for an interview about their journey.
The two compared surgery scars and chuckled about a photo that a member of Julianne's medical team took of her kidney — at her request — right before it became Tony's.
The uncle also surprised his older brother's youngest child Monday with a gift of his own: A necklace with a kidney-shaped charm — something he called "a small token" of his appreciation.
"At no point did I feel like I had to do this for him," said Julianne, a social worker who does addiction counseling. "The truth is that he never asked this of me … This was something I wanted to do … It felt right from the start for me."
She credits her uncle with helping to guide her toward her career, and before that, in the direction of sobriety after she said she struggled with drugs and alcohol in her 20s.
Jimenez's niece also said she thinks of her kidney donation simply as helping her uncle live a better, more comfortable life, not as giving a gift of life.
"But it is," said her uncle, who called it "spectacular" to have his niece's kidney working inside him.
"She literally gave me my life back," he added.
The former civil servant's need for a transplant was the most dire part of a health history that has included his four-decade struggle with diabetes, a disease he attributes to his Agent Orange exposure while serving in Vietnam.
Jimenez also suffers from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and has had bouts with skin cancer following his exposure to toxins after 9/11. He volunteered for about two weeks in bucket brigades on the pile at Ground Zero to help search for the missing and recover remains after the Twin Towers collapsed.
On 9/11, Jimenez, then a state court officer, took a ferry from Glen Cove as one of the North Shore city's Volunteer EMS Corps members to treat World Trade Center evacuees and transport them to Long Island.
Before his organ transplant, some of his former colleagues and friends also tried to spread the word about his need for a kidney from a live donor.
Nassau County Legis. Delia DiRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove), a dear friend of Jimenez's, lobbied the public for help on a Facebook page called "Seeking A Kidney Donor for Tony Jimenez."
In an October interview, Jimenez insisted he was asking for more than he ever gave in his life of public service as he appealed to strangers for an organ donation. He also explained he believed he had made it home alive from Vietnam "to help others and to do good."
But even as he made his appeal, Jimenez's niece was undergoing testing to see if she was a match as a kidney donor.
Other family members hadn't medically qualified to help Jimenez and he decided to keep his hope for survival alive by expanding his search for lifesaving assistance beyond his circle of relatives and friends.
Then along came "our Christmas miracle," Jimenez's wife of 36 years, Kathy Jimenez, said Monday.
Moments later, she watched with delight as she and her husband's daughter, Nina Jimenez, 31, helped to fasten the gold-plated kidney charm necklace around Julianne's neck.
"Now I have two again," joked Julianne, while thanking her uncle for the kidney-themed gift.
"Wear it," Kathy Jimenez told her, "in good health."