Six years ago, Robert Villarreal got down on one knee and proposed to his wife of more than two decades. This time he asked Annabelle to accept his kidney, the one that was going to save her life. “I burst into tears,” she says. “And, of course, I said yes."
In this video, the Villarreals and Randolph Schaffer, MD, a Scripps Clinic transplant surgeon, join San Diego Health host Susan Taylor to discuss the life-changing organ transplant procedure, why such operations are needed and how to become a donor.
Annabelle was suffering from lupus, an autoimmune disease that can attack the kidneys. Before her transplant operation, her kidneys were failing, and she was undergoing dialysis — the filtering of blood with a machine — until she could find a new kidney.
“I was tired all the time,” she says. “I felt nauseated, I had no appetite and I had edema (swelling) in my legs, my ankles and my face to the point where my quality of life was awful.”
It pained Robert to see the love of his life living this way. “It was heartbreaking.”
Kidney failure can be caused by “a wide variety of health problems,” including lupus, Dr. Schaffer says. “The more common causes are things like high blood pressure, or hypertension, diabetes.”
Annabelle had reached a stage where she needed a new kidney to continue to live. “Even though I knew it was inevitable, it was still shocking to hear,” she says.
Robert remembers the day when Annabelle told her family and friends what she was going through, and how he quietly shared to a few at the gathering that he was “secretly going through the process” to become a donor.
In 2012, after extensive testing, Robert found he was a match.
Both remember the night he told her. “He brought out some sparkling cider,” says Annabelle, “and got down on one knee and said: ‘Twenty-two years ago, I gave you my heart. Now, will you take my kidney?’”
“I was overwhelmed by the love I have for him,” she says, holding back tears.
Having an available living donor made a huge difference for Annabelle. Without one, she might have had to wait on dialysis for years.
More than 100,000 people are currently waiting for a kidney transplant in the United States. In many cases, transplant candidates wait years for an organ from a deceased donor. Others don’t live long enough to get a transplant or are removed from the list because they’ve become too sick to have the operation.
Despite ongoing efforts to encourage organ donation after death, there are still not enough donors in the US to meet the need.
“In any given year, we will see 15,000 to 16,000 donor kidneys come from deceased donors and about 5,000 to 6,000 kidneys com from living donors,” Dr. Schaffer says.
Anyone can register to be an organ donor.
“We can indicate that we want our organs to be used for transplant when we pass away, and that can be done online, that can be done at the Department of Motor Vehicles,” Dr. Schaffer says.
“It's also best done by telling your friends and family that this is something you want to do, so should that day come, they know what your wishes are and can help make that happen,” he says.
The Scripps Organ Transplantation Program helps patients with end-stage kidney disease through its kidney transplant program and offers a living donor program to help patients find a donor kidney faster.
A living donation is when a healthy person donates one of their kidneys to a loved one, a friend or anyone in need.
“A living donation essentially allows the person waiting to step out of the long line of people waiting for a deceased donor kidney, and move forward much more quickly with getting the operation,” says Dr. Schaffer, who leads the living donor program at Scripps.
“Across the country the wait for a kidney can vary from about three years in some parts of the country to as long as 12 years in other parts. So a living donation really takes that waiting time out of the equation,” Dr. Schaffer says.
After extensive medical work and monitoring, the transplant surgery was performed in 2013 at Scripps Green Hospital. Dr. Schaffer was one of the lead surgeons.
Both Annabelle and Robert recovered well from the procedure. Robert was out of the hospital in 48 hours, and Annabelle went home the following day.
Today, the Chula Vista couple is back to enjoying work and life. Robert is executive vice president of CDC Small Business Finance. Annabelle works with the state Employment Development Department. In her spare time, she enjoys Pilates, walking and travel.
Both also give back to the community. Robert volunteers his time to speak to potential living donors, explaining the process and giving them his personal insights. Annabelle is involved with the National Kidney Foundation and Lupus Foundation of Southern California.
Regaining her health has meant the world to Annabelle.
“Health is always a concern, but we can continue living as normal a life as possible without any huge burdens or worries and that is just wonderful.”