‘A chance to continue’: Wilton father donates kidney to children’s high school counselor

Photo of J.D. Freda

WILTON — Dann Pompa set out on an unwanted journey roughly 20 years ago when a fracture led to a surgery to place a steel rod in his leg, which later became infected and resulted in him being diagnosed with membranous glomerulonephritis, or MGN.

The diagnosis has led to worsening kidney problems, and in 2019, Pompa was told by a doctor that a transplant would soon become necessary. On April 20, the beloved Wilton High School counselor will end that long journey after finding a positive donor match in David Cote, a father of Wilton students.

Cote received a call in late February from Yale New Haven Hospital and its transplant team that he would be a match for Pompa. The date for the surgery is set for April 20.

Pompa, who has been dealing with these issues for the better part of two decades, was approved for the donor list in January 2020. He was told by the team at Yale New Haven Hospital that the best way to spread the word was making a video or publicizing it via social media.

“I don't have a Facebook, I don't have social media. I am not really inclined when it comes to all of that,” Pompa said in an interview with Hearst Connecticut Media. “I also don’t talk to people usually about anything that I need or anything for me.”

The 17-year counselor at Wilton High School generally thinks about others first. He is a club advisor to five different high school clubs that focus on charitable efforts, including St. Baldricks, a club to support the nonprofit that raises funds to cure childhood cancer, and Socks for Soldiers, a group to support American military personnel deployed overseas.

Through many of his club involvements, as well as counseling, Pompa has built strong relationships with Wilton students. Through his relationship with three students played a large role in his successful search for a kidney.

Juniors Eli Ackerman and Tyler Casey and senior Jake Arnowitz have been at the forefront of spreading awareness for Pompa since creating a video late last year focused on finding a donor. That video was shared across many social media platforms and has recorded more than 2,000 views on YouTube.

Ackerman said he was introduced to Pompa in freshman year and their relationship ha clicked since.

“I really formed a bond with him,” Ackerman said. “I got involved with St. Baldrick’s and Socks for Soldiers and he really just helped me with all of my school issues.”

Casey said he also met Pompa in freshman year and has been a part of numerous clubs that he oversees. “Everyone who knows him has that relationship with Pompa,” Casey said.

Ackerman said he wasn’t made aware of Pompa’s medical condition until his sophomore year.

“Yeah, at the end of sophomore year, he told me everything that was going on, and about how he needed a kidney,” Casey said. “He would make jokes about (the situation) but we knew we wanted to help.”

Casey, Ackerman and Arnowtiz, who is an executive producer with Wilton Educational TV, went to work on a video where they outlined Pompa’s dire need for a transplant donor and interviewed about 20 students and faculty to speak about their experiences with the longtime counselor.

The trio presented the video to Pompa on Christmas Day.

“That was when I knew it was real, that it was going to happen,” Pompa said of finding a donor.

Three days later, the video had already been making the rounds on local social media pages when the Cote family came across it.

Cote, who had been sent the link by his wife, said he was touched by the trio of students’ effort to help Pompa.

While trying to get the video to play, Cote saw the prompt under the video, asking prospective donors to call the number to the transplant team at Yale New Haven Hospital.

“So I called,” he said. “My blood type is O-positive, so I am a universal donor. I called the team at Yale. A woman named Grace on the transplantation team picked up and I told her why I was calling.”

Over the next few weeks, Cote started the screening process with Yale New Haven Hospital. That process included various tests and one-on-one interviews with social workers, transplant coordinators, a dietitian, a pharmacist and other potential donors.

When asked what his relationship with Pompa was before making the decision to undergo this process, Cote said he was only familiar with him through his children Jackson, Class of 2017, Mackenzie, Class of 2018, and Davis, who is currently a senior.

He said they had a few interactions, were aware of each other, but that was about where it ended. Still, Cote had no reservations.

“My thought process was that he needs one, and I have two,” he said bluntly.

On Feb. 22, after much testing, Cote received the call from Yale that he was accepted as Pompa’s donor. Yale asked how they should notify Pompa.

“I told them that the kids made the video, they put all the work into this and they should be involved in this process,” he said.

Ackerman and Casey set up a Zoom for the following night with Pompa to reveal his donor.

“Tyler and Eli care about people. I asked them why they did this and they both just gave me this look, like as if it were a stupid question from me. From the day I met both of them, we have just had this connection,” Pompa said. “I am forever indebted to them.”

Pompa said he looks forward to cycling after a roughly three-month recovery from the surgery in April. Cote, an avid mountain bike rider, said he would welcome a recovery ride with Pompa when both were healthy enough.

Cote said after the boys broke the news that he was the donor, Pompa sent him a thank you note. In it, he recalled Pompa being very gracious, but the one line that stood out read: “Thank you for giving me a chance to continue.”