HARLINGEN — Eva Lopez is recovering nicely at home after donating her kidney to a stranger who has become her friend.
“I’m very thankful for me being sick and he is just being perfect,” said Lopez, who just donated a kidney to Joe Cortez. In other words, she was glad she was sick instead of Joe. If he were the one sick, she explained, she would feel bad.
An article two weeks ago described how Eva and Joe were strangers before a serendipitous meeting at Wal-Mart brought them together last fall. Eva and her daughter were shopping when, for no apparent reason, they turned down the shampoo aisle. That’s where Eva said Joe’s wife was, wearing a T-shirt with the words, “My husband needs a kidney.”
The words grabbed Eva’s attention and she wouldn’t let go.
“Hello?” she said to Joe’s wife, Cynthia De La Rosa. “Are you looking for a kidney donor for your husband?”
From that singular meeting at Wal-Mart, a series of events led to Eva donating a kidney to Joe. The surgery took place March 13 in San Antonio. Joe is up walking around, and Eva is in a great deal of pain, but she isn’t complaining.
“I would feel terrible if he was actually the sick one,” she said.
The journey toward giving Joe her kidney required many months of lab work, exams and personal evaluations.
Getting ready for the procedure required numerous evaluations of her physical and emotional health.
“They wanted me to do a lot of lab work to keep matching my blood to make sure I was the same person every time,” she said. “I had to do many vials of blood.”
Then, with a tired laugh, she added, “They drained me.”
Being a blood match wasn’t enough, though.
“First they said, ‘OK, you’re a good blood match, but now we have to make sure that your kidney matches, like the size,” she recalled. “It could have been smaller, it could have been larger. Joe is a much taller man, I’m really short, so I could have had a child-sized kidney and he could have a giant kidney. And they were like, ‘Oh, yeah, you guys are a perfect match. It works.’”
Another tedious task was a 24-hour period in which she had to urinate into a bottle.
“That was not fun,” she said. “They just wanted to make sure that my kidneys were functioning properly and how I filtered urine.”
They also performed an EKG to make sure her heart could handle it and she got a CAT scan, too.
Doctors wanted to make sure she was emotionally and mentally prepared for the procedure.
“She asked me, ‘How would you feel if you donated your kidney and Joe didn’t take care of it? How would you feel about that?’” she remembered. “I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, I didn’t think about that.’ I told her, ‘Honestly it would crush me, but it’s no longer my kidney.’”
They also wanted to ensure she had strong support at home.
“They had to keep making sure that everyone in my family was more OK with it than me,” she said. “I already had my mind set, like, ‘This is what I’m doing, I’m helping Joe, and that’s that.’”
It was a stressor on her family and she worked to ensure they would be OK with the idea.
“Everyone was scared,” she said. “Anytime a family member is going to have surgery, and one where you’re actually getting an organ removed, it’s very worrisome. So everyone was like, ‘We love you, we know why you’re doing it, but we’re just afraid.’ So other than that I just had to maintain my weight.”
The road to recovery will be a long one.
“I have to keep walking around for increments of 10 minutes,” said the 36-year-old who is recuperating with family in San Antonio.
“My next follow-up will be in two weeks and they really don’t want me traveling too long,” she said. “If we have to travel we have to keep pulling over and stretching my legs so I don’t get blood clots.”
She has to be careful not to get too much or too little exercise too soon.
“They don’t want me trying to run a marathon, because I’m ready to move,” she said. “I don’t like to sit still. My mother, she’s a health care provider, so she’s been on me.”
She’s also got a younger sister looking after her when her mother is at work.
“My sister works in the mornings, but she’ll take over for me just to make sure that I’m OK, that I don’t fall down,” she said. “I’ve been getting quite dizzy.”
Tuesday night was a very “long night” she said, fatigue sounding clearly in her voice.
“It was the first night away from my husband and daughter,” she said. “And I have this incision from my belly button about four inches or more, and I can’t get comfortable. I’m used to laying on my stomach, and I can’t do that. The glue that’s holding the stitches, it starts to kind of constrict. If I move, it feels like it’s pulling apart like a bandaid.”
Not only are doctors monitoring the incision and walking, they’re also watching her respiration. She has to breath into a device that ensures she’s taking in enough oxygen.
Saturday night she wasn’t getting enough oxygen and she had to go to the emergency room.
“I had low oxygen levels and I was running a slight fever,” she said. “I was not able to have a bowel movement which they’d been wanting me to have. So they directed me to go to the ER. They just wanted to make sure I didn’t have pneumonia.”
One of the reasons she landed in the ER was the way she handles pain.
“I either stop breathing completely or I’ll do shallow breathing,” she said.
Furthermore, the pain medication she was given wasn’t working, and she doesn’t like to take pain meds anyway.
“I was just like, ‘You know what, I’m going to wean myself off of it,’” she said. “‘It’s not working, and it constipates you. If they’re wanting me to have a bowel movement, and you’re taking medication that constipates you, it kind of counteracts.’ I just took myself off of that.”
Everything turned out OK at the ER and she returned home.
The road to wellness will be long for Eva, but she has no regrets about what she did. It’s just a part of her.
“The way I was raised, my mother always taught us to be charitable,” she said. “I pull over to the side of the road and I help animals. I pull over and I give somebody an umbrella in the rain. ‘So and so needs a kidney’, Woe, I can probably be a donor. Things like that.”