John and Marcy Urdiales were high school sweethearts, meeting when Marcy was 14 and John was 15. When they were married in August 1984, they had no idea how dedicated to the “in sickness and in health” portion of their vows they would be.
Their love story is one that doesn’t only celebrate true love during a month dedicated to such things, but one of commitment and dedication as they share how Marcy gave the ultimate gift — donating her kidney in November 2018 to bring her beloved John a new lease on life.
Admittedly, John shares, as a young man, he hadn’t been the best about watching his health. He was 21 years old when he was first diagnosed with diabetes. For the first 10 years, he was on glucophage, a diabetic medication.
“To me, at 21, I thought I could take the world,” he said.
He treated his diabetes as one would treat a cold, he said, like a cold you could get rid of. “I didn’t pay attention. I just ate everything, like normal. Then after 10 years, I was really having problems with nueropathy for my feet.”
He had to go on insulin, to control his blood sugar better, and he was on insulin for 15 years. He transitioned to a pump for about 5 years, and felt that he was “controlling his sugars” well.
However, as part of that care regimen, he also had to regularly see an eye doctor and his physician. The diabetes and its effects continued to harm his body.
“That is when all the medical problems started coming,” he said, estimating that serious issues began in 2010. “The whole body started going crazy.”
Within a couple of years, he had a multitude of procedures. A specialist for his eyes spotted leakage behind his eyes and he had to have surgery on his left eye twice. He had a heart stent put in, he was diagnosed with sleep apnea, had to have surgery on his left rotator cuff, treatment for a blood clot in his groin and knee surgery on both knees — with surgery needed on one knee twice.
At some point, Marcy started journaling his health journey. In the midst of all of his other health struggles, a kidney specialist told him some serious news. His kidneys were starting to show signs of failing. He began dialysis a year later.
NEEDING A KIDNEY
“It was April 21, 2017, when the doctors told him he needed a kidney transplant,” Marcy said, flipping through the pages of her journal.
Often, after John would go to the doctor, Marcy would check in with him immediately following. For some reason, on that day, she hadn’t so John said he had to tell his wife the news when she came home from work for the day.
As soon as she walked in the door, he said, she asked about the appointment. He told her that he would have to have a kidney transplant, and the couple sat down at the kitchen table.
“We just sat at the table, starring at each other," John said. "We didn’t know what to think. It was just really hard. It’s not like you can just go get a kidney off the shelf and have it match up.”
His kidney search had also been complicated because of high enzymes. It was estimated it would be five to six years before he could get a kidney.
Even before he would be able to have a kidney, he would have to be a good candidate, having testing and evaluation to ensure he would even be able to survive a kidney transplant. Lots of tests, from X-rays to vascular testing, John said. He underwent his testing and transplant at UC Health in Aurora, Colorado.
Nearly a year after receiving the news he would need a kidney transplant — on March 22, 2018 — John heard the news that he and Marcy had been trying to avoid. He would have to go on dialysis.
“Marcy wanted to see if we could find a donor before i went on dialysis,” John remembers. “At that time, My kidney function dropped too fast. I was not feeling well at all. I was barely getting around.”
Surprisingly, John and Marcy agree, he had gone from a young man with little concern about his death to strictly following the doctors orders during that time on dialysis. Undergoing dialysis is a complicated process, the couple explained.
During dialysis, the patient has to monitor their fluid intake — from fruits to water — and lots of side effects.
“We both agreed, together, that diet was going to change. Sodium, phosphorus, all of this, we had to really watch the intake,” Marcy said, describing how she would diligently measure out the fluids he could drink.
“He was great. He followed it to the T.”
Even with dialysis, John said, he felt terrible. He would come home and be unable to sit on the couch. Often times, he would lay on his back, on the floor, trying to avoid positions that caused pain.
LOOKING FOR A DONOR
On Good Friday of 2018, the couple received more news: “We were in church and I got a call from UCHealth and they said they would put me on the deceased kidney donor list,” he said.
However, even then, Marcy said, it would be some time before he would be able to receive a kidney. His kidney function levels would have to be very low for him to be considered for a donor kidney. Basically, his kidneys would be failing.
The dedicated wife had started her own efforts to see if she could donate a kidney to her husband. She started the process, doing testing, and got bad news — her own protein levels were too high to be a candidate. The couple didn’t give up hope, Marcy said, as two to three other friends had indicated that they intended to go through the process as well.
However, Marcy just couldn’t give up and as part of a follow up on the first test, she underwent a second test. It showed levels that would allow her to qualify. Like the dates of all other tests, she recorded it in her journal — April 12, 2018. She learned that later her protein levels in that first test may have been affected by stress. She immediately called John’s doctors.
A GOOD CANDIDATE
After the medical team overseeing John’s treatment discussed it, they told her the news: “They said, ‘Yes,’ I could donate,” she said, as she tried to blink back tears.
A few months later, the transplant team did additional testing and additional testing confirmed her as a good candidate to donate her own kidney to her beloved husband.
The couple started making plans for John to undergo the transplant. It’s not an overnight process. The National Kidney Foundation estimates that the average person can wait 3.5 years before even finding a donor.
In addition to the tests, the couple has to make certain arrangements for before and after the transplant. Among the arrangements, the couple had to make plans to stay within the area of UCHealth for John to return almost daily for at least eight weeks for testing. They had to plan to have a caregiver — one of the couple’s sons stepped in.
They described their children as being great during the entire process.
“They are our team,” Marcy said. “They are great encouragement as far as keeping him uplifted and keeping me going as well.”
John said, “It’s a great game changer to have support as you are going through this process, because it does take a long time to get through it.”
It’s also emotionally exhausting, he said, noting that he had concerns about everything from the cost of a transplant to the aftercare. After all, he had 4/12 hours, three days a week, to worry as he sat for dialysis.
Marcy stayed encouraging.
“I just said, ‘God is going to get us through. We just have to have faith. Day by day, it will work out.’”
PINS AND NEEDLES
Maybe, just to make the couple reflect on how much they meant to each other, the couple’s love and faith were tested again. Marcy and John traveled a week before the surgery to under go pre-op testing. During that testing, Marcy had been told her cardio testing showed problems.
“Something was not right,” she said. “I knew something was not right. I remember them hooking me up, and the nurse is reading the thing, and she just looks at me. And, she goes to the machine and starts moving some things. I just know in my heart, something is not right.”
Even talking about that moment brings sobs from Marcy.
“I could hear John across the hall with the nurse, and he is laughing. He is so happy. I thought, ‘It’s not going to happen’” she said.
Long story short, she said, “They told me, ‘You’re going to have to see a cardiologist.’ My heart just fell.”
She described herself as heartbroken. She begged and pleaded with doctors to get her scheduled to see a cardiologist immediately. They were able to get her an appointment to see a cardiologist the next day and the couple worked with relatives to get a place to stay on short notice.
The cardiologist did a through round of testing, telling Marcy that the transplant may need to be postponed. She pressed and pressed for quick answers.
As Marcy describes the events, one is on pins and needles. Her worry is palpable as she tells about waiting for results as the couple were sent home, not knowing if the transplant they had been planning for months would be able to be done. Not knowing when they would even get the answer to that question.
'IT’S A GO'
On the Saturday before the transplant, Marcy got the call. She remembers trying to keep busy cleaning that weekend, waiting and not expecting results until at least Monday when she received the call from the coordinator of her kidney donor team, telling her everything was OK.
“Oh my gosh,” she said. “I just bawled. I just burst out in tears. I remember my daughter was standing beside me and she looked at me, And I said, ‘It’s a go.’” And she said, “I told you. I told you everything was going to be OK.”
Marcy is not shouting when she tells the story, but you can feel the glee, coupled with the relief, that she and her family must have been feeling.
For the couple to even be a match is quite rare, John said. It was already feeling like a miracle, Marcy said, and felt even more so at that point.
As the couple readied, the pastor and members of their church were great spiritual support, with their pastor Tyson Lambertson helping to organize a freewill offering at the annual chili cook off for the couple.
“We were just so blessed, and we are, and have been,” Marcy said, noting that they have also had friends organize a GoFundMe and other fundraising efforts to assist the couple. On Nov. 6, 2018 — the day after John’s birthday — he and Marcy underwent surgery and the transplant was completed.
As John remembers the moments leading up to the surgery, he does it with good spirits, telling how they had to come in early and be ready for surgery to start at 6;30 a.m. The couple were joined by their children and their pastor drove down to be with the family. At the hospital, they were in the same room together. As they awaited surgery, John said, he reflected on how it was a reversal of usual events as Marcy usually lends support to her children as John underwent proceedings. Now, both of them were going in surgery.
The thought made John nervous, he said.
“As I laid on the bed, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, man, this is really happening,” gathering a hearty laugh from his wife.
Marcy describes herself as ready, ready for the day that she could give the ultimate gift to the man she had loved her entire life.
“I was so ready because he wasn’t feeling good. I knew that he wasn’t. I was ready to get him back, to feel good, to enjoy life again. I was just excited.”
She said she was thankful that she didn’t give up and kept driving forward.
Today, the couple continue to keep busy. They barely had time on a recent Saturday to sit down for an interview as they went from one grandchild’s event to the others. John is doing well, having his appetite back, doing great with his anti-rejection medications that he’ll have to take for life.
BEING A DONOR
“Being a donor is just so easy,” Marcy said, saying she has always been willing to be an organ donor and saying her experience as a living donor re-affirmed that belief. She could have been out of the hospital the next day, though she stayed an extra day to be with her husband. John was out of the hospital three days later.
John says he hopes that his story helps those suffering from diabetes — encouraging them to take care of their health better — and for those suffering from kidney problems. He wants the friends he has met through dialysis to hold onto hope. He shares resources, such as the Kidney Foundation and the local foundation, Life Change Connection, that can assist people with diabetes and those who need help with medical costs.
“There are ways you can cut your expenses,” he said. “The biggest problem, for me, was worrying about, ‘How are we gong to pay for this,” he said. Marcy and him describe it as a scary time, but happy that they made it through their journey.
“The Lord has provided,” Marcy said.
The kidney transplant is also a source of joking between the couple. Marcy said she teases him that she gave him her “warm kidney,” as he always complains that he is hot and she complains that she is cold. John’s friends like to tease him that he really stretched those wedding vows: ‘They say, ‘When you said in sickness and health, no one really thought it would come to this.’”
Marcy said, “They always say, ‘Remember, you have her kidney.’ And, he does exactly what he is doing now, he just smiles.”