Metro

Adrian Walker

John Nucci’s plea for help and the battle of his lifetime

5-16-2015 Boston, Mass. 500 guests attended Suffolk University Commencement Dinner held at the InterContinental Hotel. L. to R. are New Suffolk University President Margaret McKenna with Suffolk Vice President John Nucci of East Boston. Photo by Bill Brett for boston.com
Bill Brett for boston.com
John Nucci with Margaret McKenna, who was then Suffolk University’s president, at a commencement dinner at the InterContinental Hotel in 2015.

John Nucci lived for decades knowing that his kidneys probably would be a problem someday, that within them lurked trouble.

His father had died of polycystic kidney disease, and it was probably just a matter of time before the hereditary curse came after him.

That knowledge didn’t stop him from building a career as one of the genuinely good guys in Boston politics. The lifelong East Boston native served in office for more than two decades — first, as a member of the elected Boston School Committee in the 1980s, then as a citywide city councilor, and finally as clerk magistrate of Suffolk Superior Court. For the past 12 years, he’s been vice president of external affairs for Suffolk University, shepherding the school’s projects through the political process.

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His political career accustomed him to making appeals — for votes, for campaign contributions. But it didn’t prepare him for the appeal he’s making now.

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Nucci, 65, needs a kidney — the sooner, the better.

“I’ve asked for contributions, I’ve asked for votes,” Nucci said. “But this is a heavy ask. You have to be a very special person to be willing to give up a piece of yourself. I can only rely on the goodness of people’s hearts.”

Nucci’s hereditary illness was discovered in the mid-1980s, around the time it took his father’s life. But its effects are often not felt until well into middle age, which is exactly what happened in Nucci’s case.

For roughly 30 years, he had annual ultrasounds on his kidneys and he was always fine. Then, last year, he wasn’t; his kidneys were beginning to fail. He said he is down to about 15 percent of normal function. Incredibly, that is sufficient, for now. But, barring major treatment, he’s going to continue to get worse.

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His options are a transplant or dialysis treatments — or both. Some patients, of necessity, go on dialysis while they await transplants. But the treatments do not arrest the declining function, and make it significantly less likely that a transplant will be successful.

The ideal donor is a healthy relative. In this regard, Nucci is unlucky. As an only child of deceased parents, he doesn’t have many close relatives. Adult children are often kidney donors, and Nucci has three adult sons. But tests have shown they have the disease. They’re all fine at this point, but they aren’t candidates for donation.

Nucci’s wife and oldest son took to Facebook last week to announce his illness and appeal for help. The response was instantaneous: former politicians, co-workers, kids he’d coached in Little League all offered to begin the process to see if they are a potential match. Many were eliminated as candidates almost immediately: they don’t match his blood type, or they have other illnesses, such as hypertension or diabetes, that render them ineligible.

“People have been great,” Nucci said. “But we’re a long way from finding a suitable donor. This is a world I knew nothing about until a few months ago.”

The process has reconnected Nucci with people he’d pretty much lost track of. One of them was an East Boston kid named Tino Capobianco. He went to Suffolk and works in local politics, but his connection to Nucci was forged when he played Little League and Nucci was his coach. Now he’s a potential kidney donor.

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“He’s always been a great community guy who cares about kids from Eastie,” Capobianco told me. “I still call him coach.”

Nucci estimates that he has a few months, perhaps a year, to find a kidney. It’s an odd turn of events for a perpetually youthful man who appears to be in perfectly good health. But he has chosen to approach it like another campaign, albeit one with exceptionally high stakes.

“I’m exercising,” he said. “I have to stay healthy. Someday I’m going to get that call, the call that they have a kidney.”

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist.
He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com.