Houston man receives life-saving kidney transplant from sister
HOUSTON - A man in Houston is thankful he was able to undergo a kidney transplant for a second chance at life. Samuel Valdes-Zavala is sharing his special story of survival during this National Donate Life Month to help spread awareness about living organ donation.
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That's because his donor is near and dear to his heart. Samuel's medical journey and crisis began when he was around 17 years old. He has been fighting chronic kidney disease into adulthood.
"It felt like it was playing a tug of war on the inside, that's what made me land in the hospital," explains Samuel.
He had to put his life on hold for medical care.
"It was scary, my diagnosis," Samuel added. "Everything I was planning, having a family one day, everything just came down on me. Thank God I ended up calling Memorial Hermann! Within a month, they ended up reaching out, and we got in to start testing through their transplant clinic."
This was a pivotal moment because, before that point, his family had received a lot of misinformation and miscommunication about organ donation.
"We were informed I couldn't donate because I was female," explains Samuel's loving sister, Mayra. "Then, someone said, if I still wanted to have kids, it would be a problem."
She and other family members were ready to help Samuel in any way they could, after witnessing him undergoing dialysis and being told he needed a new kidney. They were happy to find out the true facts about organ donation.
After undergoing extensive testing at Memorial Hermann in the Texas Medical Center, they found out that Mayra could be a donor, and she was a perfect match!
"I was very excited!" says Mayra. "I was very emotional because it was a great feeling knowing that my brother was going to live again. He was already preparing for the worst."
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Even though it was a relief to find a match, Samuel was nervous for his sister to give him one of her kidneys.
"There's always hope, I'm a woman of faith, so I always knew there had to be something, so when I found out, I was really excited and told him, we're going to get this done," states Mayra. "I remember him telling me I was crazy, that I have a daughter to look out for. He told me not to do it."
Samuel takes time to explain why because at first, he was thrilled she was a match until he further thought about it.
"When we found out she was able to donate, I got excited but then at the same time, I was thinking I can't do this to her because if it's something hereditary, I'd rather her help her daughter," states Samuel.
They ended up undergoing the surgery the day before Thanksgiving in 2022. The Chief of Nephrology at Memorial Hermann says this situation, using a living donor is an ideal scenario.
"Those are precisely the kind of kidneys that will last 30–40 years, plus Samuel was only on dialysis for over a year and is at a young age" exclaims Dr. Hassan Ibrahim, Director of Nephrology for UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann.
Mayra got special treatment, during her donation and Memorial Hermann is the only program in the country to offer something like it and it was Dr. Ibrahim's idea!
"Kidney donors at Memorial Hermann are actually housed in the VIP suite during their operation and I think it's the least we can do for someone who saves their loved person's life, but it actually frees up a spot on the kidney waiting list for someone to get a kidney - and without them, there's no transplantation," states Dr. Ibrahim.
"It was amazing," says Mayra. "Everyone was really genuine, the doctors, the surgeons, nurses, the coordinators, everyone consistently checking on me, making sure I was doing okay, they were all amazing."
Mayra recovered in record time, on her feet the same day, then she ran a full marathon in San Antonio four months after her surgery, with her doctor's blessings! She's thrilled she and her brother are doing so well.
"I have seen that he sees things differently!" exclaims Mayra. "He's planning ahead and doing good things now, just seeing him smile and seeing him full of life is the best feeling knowing it was worth it, and I'd do it all over again."
"I feel great!" adds Samuel. "Before surgery, it was hard, whenever I'd work, I had to stop and get a quick breath, even when walking, it was hard to breathe. Now I can run, I can't do a marathon like her, but I can run and have fun with Mayra's daughter and my nephew as well."
Dr. Ibrahim says the quality of life is night and day after the transplant.
"Generally, within a day, their sleep quality improves, they are no longer cold all the time like when on dialysis, food tastes better, more importantly they're not tethered or attached to a dialysis machine three times a week," explains Dr. Ibrahim. "Lastly, they can travel and go back to their jobs. There are two reasons to do a kidney transplant: One, add days to life but more importantly, add life to days. When on dialysis, patients lose muscle mass, they become deconditioned, then it takes a while to regain physical strength, but shortness of breath gets better."
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Now these siblings are enjoying their days together more than ever and Mayra is trying to help get a bill passed to help kidney patients in the future.
For more information on kidney transplants, click here.