Since the mid-1980s, Ralph Gonzales’ life has been a series of doctor and hospital visits. He suffered from end-stage renal disease at age 10, received a kidney transplant two years later, suffered through a second kidney failure and was placed back on dialysis. His name eventually was placed in a database operated by the Texas Transplant Institute’s Kidney Live Donor Program, which has been the No. 1 program in the nation in terms of volume since 2009 — and a major reason why so many kidney live-donor transplants are being performed.

But getting a new kidney would not be easy, even with a willing living donor. It turns out that his wife, Elizabeth, was not a match.

Willing donor not always enough

“As a result of a previous transplant, Ralph has so many antibodies in his blood that finding a match for him was statistically extremely unlikely,” says Dr. Adam W. Bingaman, Program Director of Abdominal Organ Transplantation, and a kidney and pancreas transplant surgeon at the Texas Transplant Institute. “We knew what we were looking for and when our team finally found a match for him, we were thrilled to transplant him as part of a 12-patient exchange transplant.”

In July 2012, Ralph received a new kidney that involved Elizabeth giving a kidney to someone else while he received a kidney meant for someone who also had an incompatible willing donor. The surgery was a success, and like many recipients, Ralph hoped he’d someday be able to meet, and thank, Angelina Pena, his donor. Imagine his surprise when hospital staffers made that wish came true — at a Texas Rangers baseball game.
Donor’s goal: make recipient ‘free’

“I have seen how hard it is, and you’re giving someone the chance to break away from [dialysis] and be free from all that,” says Pena, who donated a kidney in hopes of it being a match for her aunt, but after that couldn’t happen was happy to see it successfully trans- planted into Ralph.

“He’s not hooked up anymore,” she says. “He’s living life. He’s free.”

“The story of Ralph and Elizabeth is truly amazing,” says Daniel Stanton, MHA, MBA, FACHE, Vice President of Transplant Services at Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital. “The Texas Trans- plant Institute exists to help improve the lives of people like Ralph, and we are always excited to see these life-changing transplants occur. Of course, our Incompatible Transplant Program couldn’t exist without the amazing and selfless ‘Gift of Life’ that donors like Elizabeth and Angelina make. It is a humbling experience, and we really are proud to be a part of something so special.”

The Texas Transplant Institute is a department of Methodist Hospital. Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital is a campus of Methodist Hospital.