The Salvaggio and Manoogian families will have much to be thankful for when they gather for Christmas. The biggest gift is not one wrapped under the tree. It’s Steve Manoogian’s new kidney, donated to him by his nephew Michel Salvaggio Jr.

Manoogian, 58, received the gift of life from Salvaggio, 39, in an operation Dec. 1 at Maine Medical Center. Manoogian has suffered from Type I diabetes since he was 13. His kidneys began to fail eight years ago, forcing him to go on dialysis four years ago.

“I’m feeling better every day,” Manoogian said a week after the surgery.

Manoogian and Salvaggio come from athletic families. Manoogian was a basketball and baseball standout at Portland High in the 1970s. Salvaggio ran track and played soccer and lacrosse at Cheverus, graduating in 1994.

Manoogian has lived in Las Vegas for 25 years, working in the resort industry. He has a wife and two children. Salvaggio, who is single, lives in Portland and is the general manager of Buck’s Naked BBQ in Portland. His mother, Paula, is Manoogian’s sister.

The lead-up to the operation took three years, including elaborate tests to determine if they were a match and insurance issues to resolve.

“We had to pass a bunch of tests, more so because I’m diabetic. There seemed to be one issue after another. It was frustrating,” Manoogian said.

He had been going to dialysis three times a week and had his last one the day before surgery.

“It’s not painful doing dialysis. It’s just long. It cleans all the fluids. It comes out through the machine and goes back in. Each session is 5 1/2 hours,” he said.

FINDING A MATCH

Battling diabetes for nearly his entire life was taking a physical toll on Manoogian, who has an insulin pump.

“No matter how good you take care of it, it’s going to catch up with you. I had no problem with my eyes, but it affected my kidneys. The doctors weren’t surprised my kidneys went after having diabetes for so many years,” Manoogian said.

Two years ago, he had two strokes within six months.

“I had good cardiologists. I had some blockages, which they were able to clear up. Everything stems from diabetes,” he said.

Manoogian’s energy level was also affected. He likes to shoot baskets in his backyard, but said he would get tired after 20 to 30 minutes. He doesn’t play much golf, but when he did, he would have to quit after walking nine holes.

Salvaggio, the oldest of six siblings, was living in Denver a few years ago when he found out about his two brothers being tested as possible donors for Manoogian.

“I was home and I saw my brothers opening these letters,” said Salvaggio. “I was curious, so I asked what was up.”

Salvaggio decided to undergo the tests, too. His blood matched three of the six antigens that are determinants in matching body tissue. His brothers failed to meet any of the six.

“It seemed like no big deal to me,” Salvaggio said about being a donor.

“My brothers are married and have kids. I’m not married. With me as the donor, Steve’s body had a lot greater chance of not rejecting the organ. With the medical advancements they’ve made, I felt comfortable doing it. I never had any thoughts of how I was going to live with one kidney.”

Because Manoogian had a relative willing to donate his kidney, he didn’t have to go on a waiting list, as do recipients who receive kidneys from deceased donors. Eventually, Manoogian decided that he wanted the operation to take place back in Maine.

As the operation neared, Manoogian called Salvaggio a few times, asking: “You sure you want to go through with this?”

“Each time he told me yes. The more I heard that, the better I felt,” he said.

Salvaggio said he had friends calling, asking him emphatically, “What are you doing?”

Salvaggio’s desire to help his uncle never wavered.

Salvaggio thought of former NBA standout Alonzo Mourning, who made a comeback after a kidney transplant.

“If he could return and bang around with the other big guys again, I could certainly donate a kidney,” said Salvaggio.

GOOD PROGNOSIS

Doctors James Whiting and Juan Palma performed the surgeries. Whiting removed Salvaggio’s left kidney and Palma placed it in Manoogian.

“It went well,” said Whiting, the surgical director of the Maine Transplant Program. “We like it when it’s routine,”

The Maine Transplant Program does 50 kidney transplants a year, said Whiting. “Since the 1970s, we’ve done between 1,500 and 1,700 transplants.”

Whiting said that with a kidney from a living donor, the success rate in the first year is greater than 95 percent.

“It drops off in subsequent years. They don’t last forever. Twelve to 15 years is the average. The fact things went well is a good sign,” he said.

Manoogian said he will have to take medication to stave off rejection of the new kidney for the rest of his life.

“For now, I have to be careful around crowds. That’s why I haven’t been to a (Portland) Bulldog game yet, but I hope to before I go back home,” he said.

With all his health issues, Manoogian said he has remained upbeat.

“I’ve never had a bad day. I have my kids, my wife, my dog, my extended family and a great group of friends who have given me tremendous support. I’m breathing. I’m happy. I have no complaints about living. It’s huge to think of what Michel has sacrificed,” he said

Salvaggio said he was only on pain medication following the surgery.

Whiting said there are no lifestyle limitations for a healthy donor. The remaining kidney compensates for the one that was taken, with overall kidney function at 70 percent in three months and up to 85 percent long term.

“A person can definitely live with one kidney,” said Whiting.

While Manoogian and Salvaggio will forever share a bond, they have clear allegiances when it comes to baseball. Manoogian is a Red Sox fan, while Salvaggio is a Yankees fan.

“A Red Sox fan would never donate a kidney to a Yankees fan. We know who the recipient and the donor is,” Salvaggio joked.