Cooper's hero is his uncle

Cooper Vozza runs in the 2016 Transplant Games
Cooper Vozza runs in the 2016 Transplant Games. Photo courtesy of Iowa Donor Network.

Six-year-old Cooper Vozza knows how to command a room. Standing behind video equipment in his home, he directs people in an out of the camera’s lens, working to find just the right shot.

Cooper was born with Smith-Magenis syndrome, a developmental disorder that results in some level of intellectual disability and delayed speech and language skills. For Cooper, it means he is non-verbal—but that doesn’t mean he can’t communicate. Through his use of sign language, hand gestures, and expressive looks, everyone knew what Cooper is saying.

Cooper also was born with just one kidney, which was small and in renal failure. Doctors knew he would need a kidney transplant as soon as he was old enough and big enough for the surgery.

Thanks to a doting and determined uncle, getting older was the only thing Cooper had to wait for.

‘I’m just an uncle’

Kevin Slifka swins in the 2016 Transplant GamesKevin Slifka swims in the 2016 Transplant Games. Photo courtesy of Iowa Donor Network.

Kevin Slifka may not see himself as anything special, but Katie and Rob Vozza do. For them, Kevin is the reason Cooper, their youngest son, is alive.

Kevin is Katie’s brother-in-law, and uncle to their two sons, Cooper and his older brother, 8-year-old Bennett. Some say he’s something even bigger.

“People on Facebook, or news media covering transplant stories, throw the word ‘hero’ around all the time, but I’m no hero,” Kevin says. “I’m just an uncle.”

The Vozzas might disagree. Cooper was born in Des Moines in December 2011 and placed in a neonatal intensive care unit for respiratory distress. While he was in the NICU, doctors discovered Cooper’s single, failing kidney and determined he’d need a kidney transplant. 

Kevin didn’t think twice.

“When Cooper was born I was told that things weren’t going well, so they were sent to Iowa City for further testing and found out he was in renal failure,” Kevin says. “Shortly after I heard he’d need a transplant, I went to my sister-in-law and said, ‘Hey, he needs a kidney, and I have two.’”

Rob wasn’t at all surprised.

“Kevin was the first one to volunteer to be a potential donor, and he’d do that for a stranger or anyone,” Rob says. “It was something we definitely appreciated, but we had to think of our nieces and nephews (Kevin’s children) in case something happened, so we just put it on the back burner.”

Cooper was transferred to University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital when he was 6 days old.

“Having a diagnosis of renal failure and chronic kidney disease was so complex. With it comes multiple medications, feeding concerns, weight concerns—our main goal over the next two years was to get Cooper big enough and strong enough to accept his new kidney,” Katie says.

Cooper wasn’t able to eat, so he was fed through a gastro-intestinal tube. The Vozzas also gave him growth hormone injections daily for a year so that eventually he would be able accept an adult kidney.

“When he turned 1 year old, the pediatric nephrology team thought it was time to start the process for Cooper to determine whether he’d be put on the transplant list or whether we’d have a living donor that would want to give a kidney to Cooper,” Katie says. 

A close call

Once it was determined that Cooper was ready for transplant, potential donors within the family had to be screened. Kevin matched, but was ultimately rejected. Kevin’s phosphorous levels came back too high, and doctors were concerned he had kidney issues of his own.

During a routine health assessment at work, Kevin was talking with a nurse about his situation and was told dark sodas could contribute to raising phosphorous levels. Determined to help Cooper, Kevin stopped drinking dark soda.

“My levels dropped a bit, but I wanted them to drop more,” he says. “I stopped drinking soda altogether and started drinking more water.”

When he went back in to University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics to be evaluated, his phosphorous levels were where they were supposed to be. He was approved to be Cooper’s donor.

A rewarding gesture

“Being a donor to me, aside from getting married and raising a family, is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done,” Kevin says. “It’s overwhelming going through that process and then seeing the improvements in Cooper’s health.”

Katie and Rob notice the difference every day, even years after the surgery. And they know Kevin played a big part of Cooper’s recovery.

“Not a day goes by that we are not extremely grateful for the gift that he has given not only to Cooper but to our family,” Katie says. 

One of the biggest changes the Vozzas have noticed post-transplant is just how much Cooper’s quality of life has improved. 

“Just seeing the everyday things, which were so difficult for these kids born with renal failure and who have chronic kidney disease—whether it’s eating, walking, even communicating or socializing with friends and family,” Katie says. “Cooper gets to be a normal little boy. As parents, for us to see our son just thrive and continue to enjoy life and to have fun and to be a little boy—nothing can be better than that.”