She visited a Starbucks and left with a coffee — and a commitment to donate a kidney to a stranger
On Dec. 30, 2018, I walked into a Laguna Niguel Starbucks. It wasn’t my regular coffee spot. I was in the area doing a favor for a friend.
I ordered a tall black coffee with one pump of mocha, stopped to sprinkle cinnamon on top and then something caught my eye.
Alongside the typical leaflets for local beach yoga and dog walkers, I noticed a flier from an Anaheim woman named Monica Valdez. It read, “My honey of 27 years needs a living kidney donor as soon as possible.”
The flier called attention to an 8- to 10-year waiting list for a cadaver kidney and stated that the longer her husband, Eli Valdez, stayed on dialysis, the greater the chances for complications.
I snapped a picture of the flier, put the lid back on my coffee and returned to my Hyundai, ready to head home.
Instead I just sat in the driver’s seat, thinking.
Years ago, when my now 12-year-old son was in preschool, a mother of his classmate needed a kidney. With a different twist of fate, this young mom could have been me.
At that time, I was not able to donate, but a donor was found. However, I never forgot the intense fear and powerlessness this mom must have been feeling, waiting on someone to help save her life.
In my car, I carefully studied the images on the flier. The man looked about my age, mid-40s. There was a picture of Eli and Monica smiling together and one of Eli and his bicycle in front of Angel Stadium. He looked like a nice, regular guy — and he was clearly loved.
The bottom of the handout read, “You could be Eli’s kidney hero and save a wonderful life! He is Blood Type O+”
I, too, am Type O Positive, and in that moment I realized I would give this man my kidney. Over the next 15 minutes, still inside my car, I completed the extensive online UCLA health questionnaire.
I drove home to my family, telling no one about Eli.
A few days later the UCLA transplant program responded to my questionnaire with a phone call. I spoke with a registered nurse, Rhonda Hutley, who would become my transplant coordinator.
She asked about my motivation.
I didn’t have an incredibly thoughtful answer.
“I just want to help.”
She explained the process: A full medical and psychological evaluation, a team meeting to discuss my suitability and education about the donation.
It happened so fast. I was suddenly a little freaked out.
Rhonda calmly answered my questions. I waited for the next call. In the meantime I needed to discuss this with my husband, Jeff, who is my partner in everything. Were he not on board, I would back out.
While he was folding the laundry, I asked, “So… what do you think if I decided to be a kidney donor?”
I told him about Eli and the realities of dialysis.
After a minute, Jeff said he would support me. He never questioned my decision or made me feel odd about it.
I feared telling others — and didn’t. I figured no one would understand. It’d be one thing to donate a kidney to your child or parent or aunt or neighbor.
But a stranger?
I hardly understood it myself. I continued with the evaluation process but kept it quiet.
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Over the next four months, I gave 32 vials of blood, had a kidney CAT scan and chest X-ray, met with nephrologists, a social worker and the nurse coordinator, collected urine and had a mammogram and pap smear. By the end of April, I was deemed a healthy match and cleared for surgery.
During that time, I learned that one kidney can do most of the work of two. Also, kidney donors tend to live longer than those who haven’t donated because someone who is healthy enough to donate is likely someone already in excellent health.
Also, one of the most comforting pieces of information I learned is that if I ever need a transplant (less than 1% chance), I would go to the top of the waiting list. My risk of death during surgery was significantly lower than dying in a fire, drowning or a car accident.
Last-minute details were worked out for our kids and then Jeff and I checked into Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in the early hours of May 15, 2019.
With every nurse, doctor and hospital volunteer we met, Jeff made sure to explain how his wife was donating a kidney “to someone she found on a Starbucks flier!” He was proud, and he wanted me to feel proud too. Truth be told, I was proud. But I also felt self-conscious.
I wanted to help Eli, but was overly concerned about how my donation would appear to others. If friends and family disapproved, I didn’t want that to impact my decision. I’m also uncomfortable with public praise. I was as concerned with being torn apart for donating as I was with being applauded.
Through the entire evaluation process, I was told at every single UCLA appointment that I could always change my mind, even while being wheeled into the operating room. The utmost concern for the donor was consistently apparent — and comforting.
But this was the moment of truth. I went in feeling confident, maybe naively excited.
The surgery went as planned. I woke up in more discomfort than I had predicted. I guess I needed to block out some of the painful realities of removing an organ in order to go through with the surgery.
Still groggy and in pain, I learned that Eli was doing wonderfully, that the kidney pinked up and was already working. Jeff spent time with Monica and Eli’s extended families while we were in surgery. He learned that they are a loving, close-knit family, and they were incredibly grateful.
Immediately before surgery I had very reluctantly written about my donation on Facebook. I figured it was the best way to get the news out while avoiding awkward conversations.
As soon as I was ready, Jeff began reading me the incredibly supportive Facebook comments, and finally I could relax.
A day later, I was able to visit with Monica and Eli. We wore shirts that Monica bought saying “STRAIGHT OUTTA TRANSPLANT SURGERY.” They presented me with an incredibly thoughtful gift and beautiful cards.
It’s been a few days since surgery. My emotions are all over the place. I don’t regret my donation but the pain and discomfort have caused me to think a lot now about why I agreed to do this.
First and foremost, I donated to benefit Eli. I had something he desperately needed, and I would essentially be fine without it.
However, as much as this was for Eli, I also did it for me. Every day on the news and social media there’s a barrage of shootings at synagogues and churches and schools. There is too much homelessness and hunger and poverty. And so much hate and injustice. It beats me down and at times I feel immobilized.
I can’t improve the lives of all who suffer. That’s astoundingly distressing. However, I can help one man have a better life.
I’ve received hundreds of messages of encouragement. I didn’t expect to be so supported. Those messages, each one, helped me get through this process.
If I hadn’t done this for Eli, I wouldn’t have felt this kind of love. And the love I felt seemed to go both ways. Friends, coworkers, neighbors and family repeatedly said some versions of, “This story is exactly what we need in these difficult times.”
I was told how selfless I was for donating. I was called a hero.
I’m not comfortable with any of that. I believe for every gift there is an equal and opposite gift presented to the giver. I was given the opportunity to help someone, and I accepted the invitation. I hope my donation helps Eli live a long, healthy life.
Equally important, I hope this one act moves others to find a way in their own lives, in whatever way makes sense, to perform their own acts of kindness.
That would be heroic.
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Catherine Pearlman is a contributor to TimesOC. Follow her on Twitter at @thefamilycoach.
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