Longtime ref DeMayo, on sons' health issues: ‘It's overwhelming'

Joe and Dolores DeMayo, with sons Mike (left) and Joey, both of whom are receiving dialysis treatment. photos courtesy of the demayo family
Joe and Dolores DeMayo, with sons Mike (left) and Joey, both of whom are receiving dialysis treatment. photos courtesy of the demayo family
Posted: June 15, 2012

THEY SAY you really find out who your true friends are when times are toughest. Well, longtime Philadelphia basketball official Joe DeMayo and his family have certainly been through their share of trying moments. Yet the latest blow has left him questioning why so much has been thrown their way.

It also has made him realize, in what can be a cruel world, just how much goodwill exists from so many others, some of whom he doesn't even know.

"It just gets to the point where you say no one should have to go through all this," said the 63-year-old Northeast resident, who has retired from the city's Department of Recreation but still works as the assigner/supervisor for the Catholic and Inter-Ac Leagues and referees college games, primarily in the Atlantic 10. "It's so numbing. It just beats you up mentally. You try to do your best to keep going."

Because realistically, what else is there?

Several months ago, the DeMayos learned that the oldest of their four children, 32-year-old Joey, had been taken to the hospital with renal failure. He's now on dialysis, and hopefully soon will be placed on a transplant list. Their second-oldest son, Michael, 27, received a kidney from his father when he was 4. That lasted 12 years. He got another kidney, from a stranger who was killed in a car crash. That worked for almost 6 years. He, too, gets dialysis treatments three times a week while awaiting another donor.

Joe DeMayo's wife, Dolores, said the only family link to kidney problems is that two of her siblings had minor issues she described as anomalies.

In March 2004, DeMayo had to endure his own ordeal after pulling his rental car over to the shoulder of the Garden State Parkway. The driver-side tire rolled over his lower left leg, crushing the tibia and fibula. He made it all the way back, with extensive rehabilitation.

But this is different, because it's another child who needs help. The emotions are obviously raw, and extreme. And that never goes away.

"It's overwhelming," DeMayo said. "I look at my wife [Dolores], I've never seen a person so distraught in my life. She was completely floored. You know what they say, just hug your kids every night. Nobody should have one child go through this. I wish I had another kidney to give. I'd say screw it. How much time do I have? I'll take a chance. I'll go on dialysis …

“You've got to understand, man, life ain't fair."

But it can be compassionate. Wally Rutecki, Michael Chesney and New York-based John Hughes, some of his closest friends in the officiating community, have started the Joseph DeMayo Kidney Fight Fund. Donations can be sent to 533 Vernon Road, Springfield, PA 19064. Much of the money that has been raised has come from officials and basketball people, including the same coaches he sometimes has to explain calls to during the season. One NBA ref who wants to remain anonymous sent a check for $10,000. And it was someone with whom DeMayo had no prior contact.

"My wife and I just wrote over 200 thank-you letters," DeMayo said. "It's unbelievable. Some have contributed a dollar. There's a Jewish thing out there with the number 18. I don't know how they came up with that figure, but it has to do with their faith. It doesn't really matter. At the bottom of the letter my wife puts a little line in it: ‘Please don't take your organs to heaven. Heaven knows we need them here.' That's it in a nutshell …

“[My friends] felt like they needed to get together and do something. They had to have our permission. I basically said no, but the truth is it's needed. Joey had to quit his job. The other day he wasn't going to go to dialysis because he didn't have gas money. It's true that money can't cure it, but let's face it, you need a financial means to survive. Sometimes it's the little stuff, you know? The bills don't stop.

“But it's not just the money. It's the fact that they thought of you, the fact that they're humans and not just referees or coaches. And some of them you only see once or twice a year, maybe. There's not a better group in the world, especially here in Philly. It's pretty impressive. I mean, just look at Coaches vs. Cancer, what it's done. Fran Dunphy's wife wrote a lovely letter to me. How am I going to call a foul against them? I'm struggling with that. How do you say, ‘OK, thanks for the help but now it's back to business?'

“I think Joey's a little embarrassed by it," he went on. "But I'm waiting for the right time when I can be watching a game and say to him, ‘See that guy there? He just gave you $10,000. And he doesn't even know you.' I'm going to get such a kick out of that."

He's hardly the only one whose very being has been pushed to the limits once again.

"It's not a normal life," echoed Dolores, whom DeMayo calls his rock. "As a parent, it's hard to watch. There's not much you can do, except be there for them. There's things you want to do to help out but really can't. There's so much worry. Both of them [Joey and Michael] try to put on a good front, but their lives are not the same. They're not like other people their age.

“You just want them to have a good, happy life, a successful life. You want everything for them. That's why it's so touching, to see how these people care. It's a reflection on them. I'd like to think if there was another referee who had something going on, we'd want to help them out, too. I'm sure everybody in their lives supports some kind of charity, whether it's church or a hospital or Make-a-Wish, anything like that. But this is a fraternity. That's the only way I can explain it. They know Joe. They all feel like they're in it together.

“We've known a lot of them a long time. You see them outside the [sports] world, it's a different relationship. That's the nature of it."

Hopefully, the story can have a feel-good ending. Yet the reality is nobody knows for sure. In the meantime, you wake up every day facing a heart-tugging situation. For you, and them. And you're thankful for those you've met along the way, the ones who have become part of your world and now have your back when you need it most. It may not be enough, but it beats waging the strong fight on an island.

"There's depression," Joe DeMayo admitted, painfully. "There's times when Michael will just say, ‘I'm not going [to dialysis] anymore.' You feel for him, but what can you do? It's like a dark cloud, you know what I mean? When you really think about the enormity of all this . . .

“I'll give you an example. My youngest son Christopher just graduated from Bloomsburg. So we all went out to dinner. But they can't order what they want, because their diet has to be specialized. It's things like that, that you take for granted. Michael's more hardened, but that's [Joey's] reality from now on. And when it sinks in, it puts him right in the tank. How do you handle that kind of shock?

“I don't feel sorry for myself. You have to stay in the game. I've been telling them that forever. I can't complain too much. I've been lucky enough. But until it happens to you . . . "

You never know who's going to truly be there.

Contact Mike Kern at kernm@phillynews.com

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