Surgeons with UHealth—the University of Miami Health System successfully performed a kidney transplant on a Miami man whose donor was none other than his wife.
The March 20 surgery at Jackson Memorial Hospital was led by University of Miami transplant surgeons Gaetano Ciancio, M.D., M.B.A., professor of surgery, chief medical officer and director of the kidney and kidney-pancreas transplant program, and Mahmoud Morsi, M.D., abdominal transplant surgeon, along with a multidisciplinary team.
The organ recipient, Abel Valdes, and his wife, Gabriela, have experienced many milestones together: They began dating at 17, married years later in 2004, and now live in Kendall with their three children. But wedding vows aren’t just words for this couple; when Abel became critically ill, Gabriela did not hesitate to help her partner for life.
At 38, Abel was diagnosed with chronic renal failure, known as chronic kidney disease (CKD), a condition characterized by a gradual loss of kidney function over time and retention of fluid. At the same time, Gabriela, 36, was pregnant with their third son.
In 2016, Abel began dialysis, and he was placed on the national transplant waiting list.
But his health continued to deteriorate. Abel was admitted multiple times to the hospital for fluid retention, and in October 2017 he had open heart surgery due to the strain that dialysis had on his body.
Seeking a better quality of life, the family was referred to physicians at Miami Transplant Institute, a unique affiliation between UHealth and Jackson Health System, to learn about the Living Donor Kidney Program, spearheaded by UHealth transplant expert Giselle Guerra, M.D.
“It is the heart and soul of the kidney program because it generates the best results,” Guerra said at a news conference where she sat alongside Gabriela, Abel and their three children. “The patients do not have to linger on a waiting list, and it shortens the amount of time a patient needs to be on dialysis because they can be transplanted at any point with a living donor.”
The couple shared their story of unconditional love and educated the community on the importance of becoming a donor as part of April’s “National Donate Life Month” observance.
Gabriela was shocked to learn that if she were potentially a match, she could be the one to save her better half.
“I didn’t think it was an option for me to be a donor,” she recalled. “I didn’t think I could do it – especially when I was not related to him.”
Gabriela, a nurse at a local hospital, was confident that she had come to the right place. Lab results came in and it was determined that she was in fact a “perfect match.” The couple decided to embark on this transplant journey together – without telling their family and friends until the day of surgery.
“I really didn’t want her to do it because I was scared for her,” said Abel. “But I am thankful to her that I would have the opportunity to watch my kids grow up and continue our family adventures.”
The couple has since gone home to be reunited with their family, and they look forward to targeting their bucket list of travel destinations: the Grand Canyon and New York City.
“We felt like it was surreal — we just went with the flow and held hands pre-surgery,” said Gabriela. “Once we were finally able to see each other again it was such a relief and joyous moment.”