The Center for Spiritual Awareness church in West Sacramento sparkled with sophistication Saturday as finely dressed guests filed into Kyla Aquino Irving’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”-themed quinceañera. Martini glasses and little blue boxes dotted the tables, while an on-stage singer serenaded attendees out of their seats.
The only thing that distinguished the event from any other 15th birthday bash – other than that Aquino Irving is 37 – was a table where attendees could sign up to be blood, organ and bone marrow donors.
Aquino Irving, a Sacramento resident who received one kidney donation from her father at age 15 and another from her mother six years later, sees the 15-year anniversary of her second transplant as an occasion for celebration – and a chance to raise awareness about the need for more organ donation.
“We call it our second chance at life,” said Aquino Irving’s mother, Joi Aquino Cutter. “Every year that we survive, it’s another way to bring the message that organ donation saves lives. If you can fix it, why not do it?”
On her 15th birthday, Aquino Irving was in the throes of kidney failure, too lethargic, weak and sickly to throw a party. Doctors did not know why her kidneys broke down, but suspected it was the result of an untreated strep infection, she said. She spent weeks on dialysis, anxiously awaiting an organ transplant.
When medical tests came back confirming that both Aquino Irving’s parents were good matches for living organ donation, the family rejoiced. Her mother was pregnant at the time, so her father underwent kidney surgery and gave an organ to his daughter.
That restored her to health for a few exciting years. She attended her high school prom, competed athletically in the World Transplant Games and published a children’s book about kidney disease.
But as she began her studies at Sacramento State and enjoyed her time abroad in London, she didn’t always remember to take her medications or eat and drink healthily, she said.
“I wanted to be like everybody else,” she said. “I thought I was invincible.”
At age 21, Aquino Irving’s body rejected the kidney and she was again overtaken by illness.
“I felt sickly and horrible, but emotionally, it was more scary,” she said. “I knew what to expect and I knew I was on death’s door.”
On Aug. 16, 2001, Aquino Irving received a kidney from her mother, which she still has. Every year since then, the duo celebrated the donation date and their good health.
Organs donated from living donors tend to keep recipients healthy for twice as long as organs donated after death, said Dr. Richard Perez, director of the UC Davis Medical Center’s Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program. The organs are in better condition, and the patient isn’t deteriorating while he or she waits, he said.
To donate an organ, a living donor must be the same blood type as the patient in need and must pass a tissue compatibility test. Having two parents who are a match and who are healthy enough to donate to their child is rare, he said.
Aquino Irving said she lives a healthy life, exercising and eating well to preserve the kidney her mother gave her. She volunteers as an ambassador for Sierra Donor Services, helping to raise awareness about the need for more organ donors, specifically in ethnic groups.
Minorities represent more than half of patients awaiting transplants, yet they represent only about a quarter of those who sign up to donate organs after death, according to Sierra Donor Services. Ethnic populations have a higher need for transplants due to their higher rates of chronic disease.
About one in three people die while waiting for a transplant, according to the nonprofit. Aquino Irving said she’s grateful that she didn’t have to go on that list.
“I know what it’s like to be tied to a machine to survive, and I understand how lucky I am,” she said. “I’m very thankful.”
To sign up to be a living organ donor or a donor after death, go to www.donateifecalifornia.org or call Sierra Donor Services at 877-401-2546.