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Watch WJAR-TV's coverage this special moment during Reunion Weekend.

At Reunion Weekend, Remembering a Life-Saving Encounter

All kinds of reunions occur during Reunion Weekend — but a doctor-patient reunion is a bit unusual.

The first time Tessa M. Tomassini ’09 met Kathleen A. Calenda, M.D. ’78, she was a 5-year-old kindergarten student from Cumberland, R.I., desperately in need of a new liver.

Tomassini was ill with hepatitis. After a hospital stay, she was sent home to recover, with advice to take acetaminophen for her fever. When she didn’t seem any better, her mother took her to her pediatrician, who referred her to Tufts Medical Center-Boston Floating Hospital in Boston.  

Calenda was the first doctor the Tomassinis saw there, and the news she gave them was grave: Tessa was in liver failure, days from death.

“Literally, I have to say, there were a lot of prayers,” said Calenda. “She needed a liver very, very quickly. Luckily our prayers were answered, and she got a liver.”

Calenda attended the recent Reunion Weekend at Providence College to receive a Personal Achievement Award from the National Alumni Association for her career in pediatric gastroenterology. Surprising her by attending the ceremony and brunch was Tomassini, now a healthy young woman.

“You are proof of why we go into medicine, standing right in front of me,” Calenda told Tomassini. “You define the whole thing for me, my career.”

“I’m so happy for you,” Tomassini responded. “This is wonderful. I saw your photo as I walked in, and I almost started crying.”

A “second birthday”

Tomassini’s transplant occurred on May 13, 1993 — a day she celebrates as a second birthday. She spent three months hospitalized in Boston, followed by weekly visits by train to see Calenda. Tomassini’s mother, newly pregnant at the time, found the doctor a wealth of support.   

“Dr. Calenda was fantastic,” said Tomassini. “It was so important to my parents. She calmed my mom down. She was always there and went above and beyond as a provider. She is very compassionate.”

Tomassini remained Calenda’s patient for five years, until the doctor left Boston to return to Rhode Island and start a family of her own.

The connection might have ended there if not for Tomassini’s decision in January to begin volunteering for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. As a child, she was granted a wish — a makeover of her bedroom, which was her oasis during her illness. One wall was painted with a giant rainbow, a sign of hope that she still hasn’t painted over.

In April, Paula Montgomery, the Make-A-Wish regional director for Rhode Island, invited Tomassini to speak to the Rhode Island Advisory Board about her experience with the foundation. Tomassini knew Calenda was a member of the advisory board and would probably attend — and that it would be their first meeting in 15 years.

“As soon as they said my name, she started crying and I started crying,” said Tomassini. “I had to hug her. It was one of the coolest moments of my life, to be honest.”

But Calenda said it wasn’t Tomassini’s name she recognized.

“I recognized her face, that beautiful face,” said Calenda. “How could you forget that beautiful face?”

The Friar connection

Later, in the hallway, when they had a chance to talk, Calenda and Tomassini realized they shared another connection — both were PC graduates.

Calenda, who lives in Warwick, is an independent physician working as a consultant in Rhode Island, having adjusted her work schedule to accommodate her family, which includes a husband and two daughters.

Her brothers — Daniel ’79 and Douglas ’83 — and her mother, Mary I. Calenda ’80G, are PC alumni, with her mother, a registered nurse, returning to school to receive a graduate degree while her children were at the College.

Tomassini studied psychology at PC and intended to pursue an additional degree in social work, but health concerns led to a career change. She is preparing for the C.P.A. exam, having taken accountancy courses, including some at PC with Carol A. Hartley, assistant professor of accountancy.

“I’ve been so incredibly fortunate,” said Tomassini. “I’ve been really, really lucky with my liver. I’m really blessed.”

When PC invited Tomassini to attend the awards brunch to honor Calenda, she was happy to accept.

“She was so instrumental in who I am today,” said Tomassini. “I’ve seen a lot of doctors, and my dad and I joke that we can tell the good ones right away. She was an exceptional one. She cared for me like I was her child.”

— Vicki-Ann Downing
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