From cruise ship to hospital, transplant recipient races clock to get perfect-match kidney

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — A Lockhart woman has a lot to be thankful for this week.

Tests last week show Melissa Flores’ new kidney is working well three months after she received the transplant at a San Antonio hospital. But how she got there, she says, shows “the stars were aligned and God was in my favor.”

In mid-August, Flores left Galveston on a Mexican cruise, a trip her family had planned several months before Flores was registered on the transplant recipient list.

Melissa Flores poses with her husband on board the cruise ship. (Photo Courtesy: Melissa Flores)

“Finding a match was going to be difficult,” she said, due to her condition and the fact that her body had already rejected a previous transplant.

The day before they were set to return to Texas, cruise staff relayed a message to Flores that her transplant coordinator was trying to reach her. She’d found a rare perfect match from a deceased donor. The kidney was viable for a little more than a day.

“When I talked to the coordinator, I called her back, and she said, ‘Where are you?’ And I said, ‘In the middle of the Gulf of Mexico,'” Flores told KXAN.

She’d have to get to Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital in San Antonio by early the next afternoon to get the new kidney.

The first transplant

Flores was diagnosed at age 28 with a genetic kidney disease called IgA nephropathy, a disorder that causes antibodies to build up and can lead to inflammation that impedes a kidney’s function.

The disease progresses slowly, but in 2010, at age 40, it flared up and Flores got very sick. She started dialysis, getting regular treatments for a few months until a friend donated her a kidney.

Living donations are critical to filling the need for patients waiting for transplants. The organization Donate Life America says the average wait on the transplant recipient list is 3-5 years, and there are 100,000 people waiting for kidneys.

Learn more about becoming a living donor here.

Flores’ new kidney worked for three years, until her body rejected it.

“Having gone through that and having my life change the first time for three years,” she said, “it’s devastating.”

She went back on dialysis, opting this time for an in-home method called peritoneal dialysis that did the work her kidneys were supposed to do while she slept.

After five years on dialysis, as she prepared to put herself on the national donation list, doctors found a mass in her remaining native kidney. Believing, correctly, that it was cancer, surgeons removed the organ, and after a few more hiccups, Flores landed on the list for a new kidney this summer.

‘She’ll never get this opportunity again’

Just a few weeks after being put on the list, Flores boarded the cruise ship one Saturday in August.

When the transplant coordinator couldn’t reach her, she called Flores’ nurses at the DaVita El Milagro Dialysis Unit in Austin to try to track her down.

She’d found a kidney, she told them, from a deceased donor in Virginia. Despite her previous transplant and blood transfusions making it more difficult to find a donation her body wouldn’t reject, the kidney was a rare perfect match.

But the organ was only viable for a little more than a day.

Neris Padron and Siv Lopez, nurses at the DaVita El Milagro Dialysis Unit, recount the transplant story on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2019. (KXAN Photo/Chris Davis)

Siv Lopez, the DaVita nurse on call that day, heard the urgency in the coordinator’s voice. “She was a perfect match,” Lopez said. “She’ll never get this opportunity again.”

Lopez called Neris Padron, Flores’ primary nurse, who was home with a sick child, and relayed the message. Padron knew she was on a Carnival Cruise Line ship in the Gulf of Mexico, but that’s all she knew.

“We didn’t know what the boat name was” or when she left, Padron said.

It took a couple hours of calling the cruise company and explaining the situation before the nurses were able to get the message to the right ship’s staff, who then paged Flores that she had a call from the mainland.

“I’ll be honest,” Lopez said, “I could not have imagined it ending the way that it did.”

Flores had until 2 p.m. the next day to get to the hospital.

Race against the clock

Melissa Flores and her husband pose on the deck of the cruise ship. (Photo Courtesy: Melissa Flores)

By the time Flores got the message, the ship was already headed back to Galveston, slated to arrive the next morning.

“Realizing the gravity of the situation,” a Carnival spokesperson told Methodist Healthcare, the ship’s captain sped up the cruise liner, arriving at port early the next morning. “The team did everything possible to get her off the ship as quickly as possible.”

A customs officers got her through the front of the entry line, and she and her husband jumped in the car. It was a weekday morning, and the couple got stuck in slow Houston traffic.

Melissa Flores in the hospital with her husband still wearing a cruise t-shirt. (Photo Courtesy: Melissa Flores)

“I was looking at the clock the whole time we were moving,” Flores said. The couple managed to make the drive in about four hours, reaching San Antonio by noon, with just two hours to spare.

The surgery was successful, and the kidney is working well three months later. Flores is off dialysis now, and she says she has more energy now to go back to work full time and keep up with her three grandchildren.

She’s giving thanks this week to the nurses at DaVita, the transplant coordinator in San Antonio and the cruise line staff who all pitched in to get her from the Gulf to the hospital in time for the life-changing surgery.

“Nobody’s going to be more thankful at that table than I am.”

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