de los Santos has survived two transplants

Sue Fleming, Duval County Correspondent

FREER - For the past three years being able to live a normal, healthy life has been a special blessing, says double transplant recipient 43 year-old Christina de los Santos of Freer.

Thanks to two organ donors, one donating a kidney and another donating a pancreas, life has become even more precious, she says, after having struggled with diabetes since the age of 13.

"Actually, I think my diabetes began worsening after my mother died when I was 16," she said.

Her mother, Olga, only 39, died suddenly, leaving husband, Lupe, with daughters, Yolanda and Christina and three younger sons, Arturo, Lupe Jr. and Rene. A few months later following high school graduation, Yolanda moved to Kingsville to attend college.

"My mother's death was hard on all of us," Christina said. "Everything changed then."

Though Christina continued to excel in her studies at school, each day was a challenge.

"My mother had taught us all how to cook, clean and wash and I was busy every day taking care of my younger brothers but I didn't really think about it," she said. "I just did what I had to do, mostly by trial and error."

As the years passed, Christina's sugar levels began fluctuating and as a result, in 1998 her left leg below the knee had to be amputated.

Further complications arose in 2003 as she began experiencing renal failure of her kidneys and dialysis treatments were required three times a week.

At the worst, she began having dialysis treatments eight days in a row for four hours a day. Having a kidney transplant was now crucial in order for her to survive.

The kidneys, which are bean-shaped organs, are located near the middle of the back just below the rib cage. They remove wastes and extra water from the blood to form urine.

Every day, kidneys process about 200 quarts of blood to sift out about two quarts of waste products and extra water.

Wastes in the blood come from the normal breakdown of active tissues. After the body has taken what it needs from the food, waste is sent to the blood.

If kidneys do not remove these wastes, the wastes build up in the blood and damage the body.

"This was a terrible time, was really hard going through it but my brother, Lupe, called and told me he knew that he was a match. He wouldn't let any one else even test," she recalled. "He kept insisting that he was the match."

After completing necessary tests, Lupe Jr. was found to be a match.

On April 9, 2003, transplant surgery was performed before noon in San Antonio at the Methodist Specialty Transplants Hospital.

During surgery, the donor kidney was removed and was carefully handed through a window to an adjoining operating room where Christina's surgeons were awaiting the organ. Doctors then attached Lupe's left kidney to her left side near the diseased two kidneys.

Upon gaining consciousness, Christina immediately asked about her brother's condition.

"'How is Lupe?' is the first question I asked and they told me he was fine. He was released after two days and is still doing great. I was in the hospital for six days," she said.

"He had been right - he was a perfect match. Neither of us ever has had any problems at all."

After receiving the kidney, Christina was soon informed by doctors that she needed a pancreas and was placed on a transplant list.

Then 17 months later, a pancreas from a 15-year-old car accident victim from Oklahoma became available.

"I was called at 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 17 and the surgery was done the next morning on Sept.18," she said.

During surgery, Christina's own diseased pancreas was left in place which is standard procedure, and the donor pancreas was transplanted through a midline abdominal incision.

The donor duodenum, which remained attached to the donor pancreas, was then attached to Christina's small bowel to allow the digestive enzymes produced by the donor pancreas to drain into the small intestine.

For about a year, she was careful to avoid contracting possible infections.

"I stayed away from people with coughs, colds, that sort of thing," she said. "I pretty much was in isolation because I didn't want to risk having rejection."

To avoid rejection, Christina will continue to take immuno suppressants twice a day for the rest of her life and will be regularly monitored by her doctor in Corpus Christi every eight months.

"My doctor calls me his 'miracle woman' and I guess I am," she said grinning. "I've never had any problems at all - no side effects, no signs of any rejection and it's been over three years. If rejection occurs, it will happen within three years," she explained.

Today, Christina says she is leading an independent lifestyle, free of diabetes. She is no longer having to rely on insulin, nor has to follow a strict meal regimen. She is able to eat whenever, whatever she desires.

Every day she says she most appreciates simple things such as music, a good book, television, attending church and particularly enjoys daily visits from her father.

She said, "I owe my dad a lot. He's always been there for me and after thinking about it, it must have been harder on him than anyone having two children going through surgery at the same time when I had the kidney transplant."

Recently, after waiting the required period of three years, she forwarded a letter of thanks to the family of her pancreas donor.

"I know it must have been terrible for them to lose their loved one but I wanted them to know he/she gave me a second chance at life," Christina said. "I could never say 'thank you' enough."

Today, most importantly, Christina wants to encourage more people to become organ donors.

"Give the gift of life to others. It's easy to do and there's no charge whatsoever to the donor's family" she stressed.

"Without donors, I wouldn't be here and believe me, life is the greatest gift of all."