Tenelle Wright recovering, fighting rejection

CHARLESTON Tenelle Wright had been waiting for the signal for five months, five months of sliding ever closer to liver failure and a lingering death; when the ringer went off it meant that an organ was available for a transplant. Immediately.

“When we got the call it was hectic. I dialed 911 and sheriff’s deputies came to pick him up. Georgetown County was met by Charleston County. They rushed him down there,” said Helen Riddle, a parishioner at Precious Blood Catholic Church who is in charge of the Tenelle Wright Fund.

“Down there” was the Medical University of South Carolina Hospital where Wright received a new liver on January 5. The young man was re-admitted to MUSC four times with organ rejection problems since the main operation, but said he is now doing well, although he feels weak. He recuperated in rented apartments in Charleston for seven weeks, where he was nursed by his great-grandmother.

“He went to the hospital each day and a nurse came in at night. Grace Wright is with him every minute of the day,” Riddle said.

Tenelle Wright, 20, was adopted by Grace and her husband, Charles, at the request of a dying daughter nearly 18 years ago. “Our daughter, Mary Ann Mortimer, asked Grace to take care of her baby girl, who had Tenelle when she was in tenth grade. We carried him to New York when he was still just crawling. Then Grace took him to the courthouse and got papers,” Charles Wright said.

When Wright retired from his job as a Manhattan cabbie soon after, the family moved back to Pawley’s Island, where life was simple and peaceful until young Tenelle was stricken with liver disease of unknown origin. He spent much of his last two years of high school in and out of hospitals, but his condition continued to deteriorate until he was finally placed on a list for an organ transplant.

“They actually called us twice. The first time, I just sit down and couldn’t move. A friend started to drive us to Charleston and he called the police to ask them if he could speed. They said no, but they sent a police car to take us,” Mrs. Wright said. “Tenelle was second on the list then, but he was sent home.”

When the Wright family received the second phone call, it was just in time. One of the team of transplant physicians told Mrs. Wright that Tenelle’s liver was so perforated with cirrhosis that he probably would not have lived another month without a new, donated one. Mrs. Wright said that the family does not know the identity of the organ donor who saved Tenelle’s life.

“I say prayers for that person all the time,” she said. “May his soul rest in peace.”

The great-grandmother also prays for her fellow parishioners at Precious Blood, who have supported Tenelle and his family all through their ordeal. She said: “All the members of the church have really stuck by us. I can’t ever repay them; I just thank God for them.”

The Wrights certainly could never repay them financially. When Father Charles Snopek, pastor the Pawley’s Island parish where Tenelle was an altar server, asked Mrs. Wright in September how they were faring, she replied: “Bad, bad, bad.” Now she admits that they are “broke.” Most medical-related expenses are being taken care of, however.

The parish took up a collection for the family and started prayer vigils on their behalf. Father Snopek donated $3,000 from parish outreach money to a fund started by parishioners, Riddle said, and St. Cyprian in Georgetown kicked in. When Tim Bullard, a correspondent for The New Catholic Miscellany, wrote a story in the Oct. 12, 1996 edition about the family medical drama, the money came pouring in.

“It was wonderful, unbelievable,” Riddle said. “That’s where most of the money came from. Readers sent it in from all over the state, from Aiken and Greenville and little towns I’ve never even heard of. So far, in the bank we have over $10,300.”

That was before she disbursed the money for rent and living expenses while Tenelle and his great-grandmother resided in Charleston. It will also help with prescription drugs and other expenses not included in Medicaid coverage. Tenelle could be taking as many as nine different medications; the anti-rejection drug will have to be taken for the rest of his life. The original funding has been consumed by expenses.

Riddle thinks the young man is worth it: “He’s a wonderful kid, quiet and devoted to his church and his grandmother.”

Grace Wright seconds that opinion. She said that the young man never caused her and her husband any problems growing up. He managed to graduate from Waccamaw High School despite his health problems and is well-loved at church. With his liver failing and his body weakened by systemic bilious poisoning, Tenelle Wright served at the altar of Precious Blood for Christmas.

“He’s my life,” Grace Tenelle said. “I ask God every day to let me live so’s I can continue to care for him until he’s better.”

Tenelle Wright and his great-grandparents can be contacted at P.O. Box 1014, Pawley’s Island, S.C. 29585.