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March 27, 2013
By Benét J. Wilson
Talk about inspiration—a father inspired his daughter to go through a second harrowing liver transplant by promising to buy her the airplane of her dreams after she made it through the surgery and recovery. Thirty-year-old Julie DeStefano comes from a family of pilots, including herself, her brother, and her father, Dennis, who both own aircraft.
At age 10, DeStefano was diagnosed with Budd-Chiari Syndrome, which blocks the liver’s veins. On Easter 1995, she received a liver transplant.
“My dad, a pilot since his mid-twenties, really exposed me to flying. I started working at a small airport when I was 16 years old,” she said. “I took lessons here and there but it wasn't until I was 20 years old and a friend took me for an acro flight in a Christen Eagle that I was totally hooked. I finished my private pilot's license a few months after that.”
With her pre-existing condition, DeStefano has always had to get a special issuance medical. “I have found that the process is best facilitated by giving the FAA as much information as possible to help them make their decision,” she said. “My transplant team at the Nebraska Medical Center is extremely proactive and cooperative in providing necessary documentation to the local AME, who then submits that information to the FAA regional office. My medical certification is only valid for one year at a time, but it is a small price to pay to get to do what I love so much.”
Julie did well until she was 28 years old, said her father Dennis DeStefano. “She went through liver failure again after the disease returned,” he said. “She was depressed. She and her husband, both working in aviation, had lost their jobs. She said she didn’t want to go through another transplant and deprive someone else of a liver.”
Dennis DeStefano admitted that a liver transplant is an arduous process, but that his daughter had a lot of support. “So to help her get through and boost her will to live, I told her that if she did this, ‘I’ll buy you the plane you want—a taildragger,’” he recalled.
Fast forward to the present, after DeStefano has recovered from her second liver transplant. She works as an avionics sales representative for Sarasota Avionics and began shopping for the perfect aircraft last month.
Julie DeStefano was featured in a documentary film, Pay It 4Ward , which profiles the experiences of transplant recipients and their families. From an aviation perspective, said DeStefano, the movie is interesting because the producer, Darren Susana, is a kidney-pancreas recipient who is currently pursuing his sport pilot certificate. Another member of the documentary, Greg Lewis is a kidney recipient and captain for United Airlines. “And I have received two liver transplants hold my Private Pilot SEL & SES and am employed as an avionics sales rep for Sarasota Avionics. The aviation connection is all totally coincidental,” she said.
DeStefano also spends a great deal of time working with families who are in the process of receiving a transplant and have lost loved ones. She said it helps them talk to someone who has been through the process.
AOPA eNewsletter and Social Media Editor Benét J. Wilson joined AOPA in 2011. She is working on her private pilot certificate.
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