You’d never guess Tony Arenas has health complications. He coaches Catholic Youth Ministry basketball through St. Charles Parish in Hartland, he keeps up with his family and helps out at Palmer’s Steakhouse, his parents’ restaurant, from time to time.
But Arenas has struggled with cystic fibrosis for more than 30 years. Diagnosed at six months old, Arenas had to go through breathing treatments as a teenager, took thousands of pills a month and visited the doctor often. But he didn’t let his illness define him.
“I didn’t let it dictate how I did things,” he said. “I had limitations physically, but I still tried to do what I wanted to do.”
About three years ago, Arenas’ health declined rapidly. He was taken to the UW Health Hospital in Madison to have a double lung transplant, after being on the transplant list for only 30 hours. His father, Jerry Arenas, said Tony wouldn’t have made it another week if he didn’t get the lung transplant when he did.
Cystic fibrosis is caused by a defective gene that allows the buildup of thick, sticky mucus in organs such as the lungs and the pancreas. In the lungs, the mucus clogs the airways and traps bacteria that leads to infection and lung damage. In the pancreas, this mucus prevents the body from breaking down food and absorbing important nutrients. There is no cure for the disease.
The Arenas family is looking to change that. Over the past 30 years, they have raised $2.5 million for cystic fibrosis research through fundraisers hosted at their restaurants.
“Our family has reached a $2.5 million accomplishment,” Jerry said. “We didn’t know that was going to happen and it didn’t happen intentionally. The fact that we are able to touch so many lives through our fundraising, that’s God work.”
Now they are working to establish a $1 million endowment fund in Tony’s name at UW Health, to be called the Anthony J. Arenas Professorship. Donors from UW-Madison gave $500,000 for the grant, but the Arenas family has to match that donation in five years to create the grant. The grant would allow Tony’s surgeon, Dr. James Maloney, to receive around $50,000 a year to conduct transplant research.
On Sunday, Aug. 26, the family will host its annual Tent Event with proceeds going towards the professorship. The street in front of Palmer’s Steakhouse at 122 E. Capitol Drive will be closed that day. An all-you-can eat buffet, including steak, ribs, salads and dessert, will be served from 1 to 6 p.m. and all-you-can-drink wine, beer and soda will be available from 1 to 7 p.m. Live music will play from 1 to 5 p.m. and a live auction will start at 5 p.m. Throughout the day, there will be raffles and games. Tickets are $30 in advance and can be purchased at the restaurant, or $40 at the door.
Now that Tony has received his transplant, the family is trying to spread awareness of cystic fibrosis and its effects, as well as the importance of organ donation. Organ donation has changed Tony’s lifestyle. With his new lungs, he doesn’t have to do breathing treatments and he can do activities he enjoys, like playing basketball and golf.
“It’s been a mind-changing difference,” Tony said of life after the transplant. “I can breathe easily. I used to get easily fatigued breathing. After walking down steps, I’d be out of breath. I catch myself thinking from time to time about the joy in the simple things in life. If I want to take a walk, I can take one now, and be outside and enjoy the sun. I find joy in the little things now.”
Tony, who belongs to St. Anthony Parish in Pewaukee, believes he always had a strong faith in God, but really leaned on God the year before and after his transplant. “My prayers were being answered, from ‘I hope we get accepted on the transplant list’ to getting a donor, to ‘I hope I pass the swallow test and can eat food today,’” he said. “Whatever I asked for, I got answers. It was an amazing feeling to trust God and he came through.”
Jerry and the rest of the Arenas family, parishioners at St. Charles Parish in Hartland, believe that without their faith, they wouldn’t have anything. The family wouldn’t have made it.
“We relied on our faith to get through the obstacles, and trusted that God had a bigger plan for things,” Jerry said. “God is using Tony as a story that there are miracles. Tony is a miracle. Faith keeps you strong and keeps you going, so you have to make sure your faith is always with you.”