From One Bro to Another

USD alumni Joe Gonzales and Amanda Cuellar masked and gowned after Joe received a kidney donation from Amanda.

FRIENDSHIP GROWS DEEPER AFTER LIFESAVING GIFT

It’s easy to sense when people have been friends for a long time. For one thing, there’s an easy banter that only comes from decades of closeness. “Bro! We were just talking about that time when you and your daughter brought me lunch when I was at work at the hospital,” Joe Gonzales ’19 (MSN) exclaims. “She was only three then, and now she’s all grown up in college.”

“I know, bro! It’s crazy!,” responds Amanda Cuellar ’11 (MSN), ’19 (MSN) with infectious delight. 

When asked to talk about their 20-year-plus friendship, the two interrupt each other. “He’d go with me and my kids when we did back-to-school shopping,” offers Cuellar. “He talks to my dad more often than I do!”

“Bro, you’re not lying,” Gonzales says.

Seeing their easy affection, it’s not surprising — but still impressive — that when her friend needed one of her body’s organs, Cuellar was on it. That’s what you do when your bro needs you.

As far as he could tell, in mid-2020 Gonzales was in perfect health. Still, his job as a nurse practitioner required an annual wellness check. He noticed something off with his kidney function on his lab work, but assumed it was just a fluke.

It wasn’t. A biopsy revealed he had focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), a rare disease that can lead to kidney disease or failure. “I was a fairly new nurse practitioner,” he recalls. “I had just started this career when the pandemic started, and this was scary.”

His medical team tried high doses of steroids as well as other treatments, but none had positive results. Before long, it was clear his health was suffering. When his kidney function had dropped to 15%, he became eligible to be placed on a transplant list.

That’s when his doctor told him it was time to reach out to family and friends to see if any of them would be willing to see if they were a match. “To be honest, I sat on that. I didn’t reach out to my family or tell my friends or tell my family. I prayed and prayed. At the next visit, he asked me if I’d reached out, and I had to admit that I hadn’t.” That’s when the surgeon told him that there was a 10 year wait for a cadaver kidney unless a person is critically ill.

So, Gonzales texted five family members with the news and got on the phone with Cuellar. “I know he’s kind of private,” she recalls. “But I told him, ‘Bro, you’re a superstar. People are going to want to help you.’” When she hung up, she immediately got on the kidney donor website, filled out a lengthy questionnaire, and started to process to see if she might be a match. 

After submitting vials of blood and other fluids and having to address a few health issues of her own — including a directive to drop some weight and make sure her blood sugar wasn’t elevated — in January of 2022, the word came that she was a match.

“I honestly feel that this was in the cards for us,” says Cuellar. “I was never, ever nervous, just excited. And my kids and my parents were fine with it. It was just meant to be.”

By the time the surgery took place in March 2022, they were both eager to get to the other side. “Those two months prior to the transplant were when I felt the worst,” says Gonzales. “My eyes were super swollen, I was very pale and nauseated, I had no appetite. But worst of all was the fatigue. In this career we’re in, we can’t be fatigued. We’re seeing up to 20 to 25 patients a day. Their lives are in our hands.” 

The morning after the transplant, the pair had breakfast together in Gonzales’ hospital room. “They put us two rooms apart, because they wanted us to have to walk,” says Cuellar. 

Joe’s improvement was practically immediate. “I literally felt like a whole new person the very next day,” he says. “And now, each day that I wake up, I feel even better. I feel like my old self, which is hard to believe, because it wasn’t that long ago when I felt so miserable.” 

The two met when they were both working at Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Brawley, California, and immediately hit it off. In fact, he attended her graduation from USD in 2011; after one look at the campus, he told her he was going to walk across that stage one day himself.

Today, the pair are both working on earning their Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees from USD and expect to graduate in May of 2023. “We always said we were going to get our doctorate together,” Cuellar says. “And we are.”

“What Amanda did was very selfless,” Gonzales says. “As for me, I just want to get the word out that people need to get checked by their primary doctors at least once a year, just to make sure everything’s OK. 

“Especially in the Hispanic and Latino community, people don’t go to the doctor unless something’s wrong. By then, it can be too late. Even if you’re afraid, you need to get checked out, because early detection is key.”Julene Snyder

If you’re interested in learning more about kidney donations, visit the National Kidney Foundation website

Photo by Enrique Alvarado

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