Christine Perrelli of Astoria will be honoring her late son, Anthony “AJ” Perrelli, at the Rose Bowl Parade in Pasadena, California, in January for his lifesaving organ donation that has given two people a second chance at life.
“We’re excited because it’s a great way to honor him as well as the others,” Perrelli said. “For us, he always thought he’d live in California as an actor, so it’s kind of like putting him where he should be and to have that finale for him.”
Each year, the 58 organ procurement organizations (OPO) across the country have the privilege of honoring one organ donor and their family on a float at the annual Rose Bowl Parade. This year, LiveOnNY, the organization that oversees organ donation and transplantation in the greater New York area, will honor AJ, a professional dancer, singer, actor, stage performer and father, who died at the age of 26 in October 2013.
AJ’s final casting call was as an organ donor. In AJ’s life and after his death, people worldwide were inspired to pursue their passions in the arts and also signed up to become an organ donor, Perrelli said.
According to Perrelli, AJ was in the prime of his life, having traveled the world for two and a half years before he came back to New York to pursue his passion of becoming an actor. Perrelli remembers her son as “multitalented, a family guy and a nurturing person” who went out of his way to help other people.
“When he was going to China, and he was 19 at the time, I said, ‘AJ if anything happens to you, what would you want me to do?’ He says, ‘Mom, I’m an organ donor, and if they can use any of my parts, do it.’ I said, ‘Even in China?’ He said, ‘Yes, even in China,’” Perrelli said.
AJ’s final request was fulfilled when Mercia Pantea, who resides in western New York, received a successful liver and kidney transplant.
“I feel excellent. I feel like when I was young, although I’m old,” Pantea said. “I don’t have any headaches or pain, except for when I lift weights. I cannot possibly complain — everything is working 100%.”
According to Pantea, he was on the waiting list for two years, which he described as a worrisome and nerve-wracking time period. Upon receiving news of a donor, Pantea had met with AJ’s family.
“It was emotional, because, as a parent, I understand how hard it is to meet with a person that your child donated an organ to. It was a really touching moment,” Pantea said. “There is an unspoken sentiment that you have when you realize after the transplant that someone else passed away. The chances you got are so tremendously incredible. You think about it day and night — it’s mind boggling.”
Perrelli, who had met with Pantea twice, said it was amazing to see how well he and another recipient were doing following their transplant procedure. In November, Perrelli and Pantea finished their decoration of AJ that will be placed on the float.
“AJ was one of the few at the time that gave two organs to two people. I don’t know how common it is now, but at the time it wasn’t common for someone to give two organs per person,” Perrelli said. “When I think about it, these people have eight more years with their children and grandchildren. I think about how I would be at this age and my grandkids, and am grateful to have met Mercia and understand that my son is part of him.”
To honor AJ’s memory, Perrelli is continuing to champion the importance of organ donation.
Following AJ’s death, a fundraising page was set up to pay for burial costs. Perrelli made a promise that any money left over would go to a fund established in AJ’s name for the arts. What had started out as a scholarship fund turned into a full-fledged nonprofit, called The AJ Project, and an agreement that organ donor education and awareness would always be a part of each and every program the organization does.
AJ’s Project has hosted several networking events; resourced assistance for a ballet dancer in need; produced two film pieces for organ donation; hosted a Tony awards viewing party event featuring guest performers and comedy; produced a burlesque show; and hosted two annual friend raising/donor awareness events showcasing amazing talent.
According to Perrelli, when she became involved in advocating for organ donation, there was a lot of misinformation and questions around the subject.
“I found that the inaccuracies and misinformation were so great, that there needed to be a way to get the real story out and to learn more and tell people about it. This gave me a chance to speak about my son, but to really turn the story to a positive and give correct information,” Perrelli said. “It started out that way, but now I understand it’s a greater purpose.”