Two families in Texas experienced a remarkable journey, one that brought them together for a lifesaving kidney swap and created an unbreakable bond. In a world where their paths might have never crossed, Leticia McQueen and Geraldina Beltran found hope in the midst of their struggles with chronic kidney disease. Little did these mothers know the answer to their prayers lay within each other’s families.
Leticia, a grandmother and mother to five daughters, discovered six years ago she had been born with just one kidney, and as the years passed, it began to fail. The debilitating condition forced her to undergo dialysis, and the search for a suitable kidney match proved to be a daunting challenge. With her kidney function declining to less than 5%, Leticia’s days were overshadowed by an uncertain future.
“When every birthday passed by, I was like, will I be around for the next one?,” Leticia tearfully recalled. “I did whatever I could to reduce the effects of my kidney condition. I went on a special diet and I held out as long as I could before getting put on dialysis. Diet was no longer an option for me. I had to go on dialysis to survive. It’s either dialysis for the rest of my life or be put on a kidney transplant donor list.”
Leticia was on the deceased organ donor list for four years but no match was found. Then, her family learned about the Living Kidney Donor Program at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, the fastest and most effective way for an individual with end-stage kidney disease to receive a lifesaving kidney transplant.
Determined to make a difference, Audrey offered to donate one of her healthy kidneys to her mother.
“I chose to get tested,” said Audrey. “I knew I didn’t want to lose my mom and if there was anything I could do to save her life, I’d be willing to do it for my mom because we were running out of options.”
But Audrey’s hopes were crushed when she learned she wasn’t a compatible match. However, a glimmer of hope emerged when the transplant center reached out to her with a proposal for a “kidney swap.”
“They asked if we wanted to be put on that list and we inquired about what this process involved,” said Audrey. “I would donate my kidney to a stranger, and in return, someone else would donate a kidney to my mom. Initially, I wasn’t too keen on the idea because I wanted to give my kidney directly to my mom.”
However, fate had a different plan. While Audrey wasn’t a direct match for her mother, she was a match for someone else.
Geraldina, a grandmother and mother of four sons, faced the harsh realities of chronic kidney disease and was desperately awaiting a lifesaving transplant. Unaware of any kidney issues, it wasn’t until late 2018 during her annual exam and blood work, that she learned something was wrong with her kidney.
“My mom was in a position where doctors were trying to do everything they could to keep her healthy to prevent her from going on kidney dialysis,” said her son, Antonio. “The idea was if she got healthier, then she could prevent dialysis for a good while. But eventually, her kidney function showed a slow downward progression. Every night, she had to go on at-home dialysis. It was getting tough on mom.” “I did everything my doctor suggested I do,” said Geraldina. “I ate healthier and lost weight. My kidney issue was interfering with my life. I felt restricted and I couldn’t travel. I wanted to see my grandkids.”
Geraldina’s only hope for survival – a kidney transplant.
In a remarkable turn of events, Antonio – just like Audrey – shared the same desire to donate his kidney to his ailing mother. Geraldina expressed, “My son and even my husband wanted to give me a kidney, but unfortunately, they were not a match.” However, despite Antonio not being a suitable kidney donor for Geraldina, both the McQueen and Beltran families were about to experience a miraculous revelation.
“While I was at work, the nurse practitioner called me with incredible news,” Audrey recalled. “She said, ‘Audrey, we found a match for you. When would you like to schedule the surgery?’ I was completely caught off guard. I was in shock and couldn’t believe it. I told her I needed to discuss it with my family.”
“They called us about the match,” Antonio added. “It was incredibly surreal. So many pieces had to fall into place for this to happen. Considering all the factors involved, it was truly amazing for our families.”
“My daughter was a suitable match for Antonio’s mother, and I found out that I had a match as well, and it was Antonio who would be donating his kidney to me. This was God’s miracle in the making.”
Before the kidney transplantation could proceed, Audrey and Antonio underwent multiple tests a few weeks prior to the surgery to ensure they were healthy enough to donate. Being in good health is a prerequisite for organ donation, ensuring the safety and well-being of the donor and the recipient.
On November 11, 2022, a heartwarming exchange took place at Memorial Hermann that bound these families together. Audrey donated her kidney to Geraldina while Antonio donated his kidney to Leticia, resulting in a transformative kidney swap that forever changed the lives of these two families.
Audrey and Antonio underwent a donor nephrectomy, a minimally invasive procedure that involved making small incisions in their abdomen. An advanced laparoscopic tool provided a precise view of the kidneys for extraction. At the same time while Audrey and Antonio were undergoing their procedures, Leticia and Geraldina’s ailing kidneys were removed laparoscopically. The surgical team transplanted a healthy kidney in each recipient and surgical connections were made to ensure proper blood supply and urinary flow. Immunosuppressant medications were administered post-surgery to Leticia and Geraldina to prevent rejection of their new kidneys.
The surgeons involved in the kidney swap included Dr. J. Steve Bynon, Jr., professor of surgery and director of immunology and abdominal transplantation at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and a general and transplant surgeon affiliated with Memorial Hermann who performed the kidney transplant surgery on Geraldina and Leticia; Dr. Vincenzo Villani, assistant professor of surgery at UTHealth Houston and a transplant surgeon affiliated with Memorial Hermann, who performed Audrey’s surgery; and Dr. Jeffrey Fair, professor of surgery at UTHealth Houston and surgeon affiliated with Memorial Hermann, who performed Antonio’s surgery.
“The surgeries were a great success,” said Dr. Hassan Ibrahim, professor of surgery and the medical nephrology transplant director at UTHealth Houston and nephrologist affiliated with Memorial Hermann who helped match these families. “We are immensely thankful for our dedicated team of transplant surgeons, coordinators, nurses, and all those involved, from finding the match to performing the transplants to helping these mothers resume a normal life.”
“I thank the Lord for this gift every day,” said Leticia. Since my kidney transplant surgery, I am doing well. I have more energy now, and I can enjoy foods like bananas and avocados that were once off-limits.”
Geraldina expressed her gratitude, too. “I am very happy now, and my physical ability and endurance has improved. I feel comfortable visiting my grandchildren out of state, and I have a positive outlook on life.”
Like Leticia and Geraldina, many patients in the U.S. confront life-threatening conditions daily, eagerly anticipating the gift of a second chance through organ transplantation. However, the demand for organs surpasses the available supply, leading to long waiting periods and heightened anxiety for those in need.
“In this country, there are close to 100,000 people on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, and that doesn’t include all potential candidates for transplantation,” said Dr. Bynon. “Live donations offer the best solution to bridge this gap and provide a chance for transplant patients to gain a new lease on life. I anticipate a promising long-term prognosis for Geraldina and Leticia. Their inspiring journey underscores the significance of living donation in saving lives. We’re honored to be part of their hopeful path ahead.”
A few days after their surgery, both families had a tearful but joyful reunion. They couldn’t believe how their lives had unexpectedly come together. It’s the kind of connection that will stick with them forever.
“As a child, you never imagine that you’ll be the one to save your parent’s life,” said Audrey. “Being able to do that and grant my mom many more years with us is truly a miraculous feeling. Dr. Ibrahim and his team were instrumental in making this happen and made us feel comfortable with the whole process.”
Reflecting on this extraordinary journey together, Antonio added, “There are only a few people in the world who get to experience the unique opportunity that Audrey and I had – the chance to make a life-changing decision for our mothers. Experiencing the true meaning of sacrificing for our mothers is something we will cherish. I am grateful to everyone who made this possible for both our families.”