On Monday, 22-year-old college student Aliana Deveza met two sisters: Deveza had saved one of their lives. And the other sister? Well, as it turns out, she had saved the life of Aliana’s mom.
All four of the women shared scars, recovery stories and shed a few tears at the Connie Frank Transplant Center in the UC San Francisco Medical Center where on July 20 they underwent an organ swap that surgeons there believe is the first of its kind.
Aliana donated a little more than 50 percent of her liver to Connie Saragoza de Salinas, a Sacramento mother of two who had given up hope of seeing her tween daughters graduate high school, marry or have children.
Saragoza’s sister, Annie Simmons, donated one of her kidneys to Aliana’s mom, Erosalyn Deveza. Prior to the surgery, Deveza spent eight hours each night hooked up to a dialysis machine to maintain her ability to work and care for her family.
The organ recipients praised the talent and knowledge of their surgeons, but the physicians – Dr. John Roberts and Dr. Nancy Ascher – gave credit to Aliana Deveza, who researched the idea of a kidney-liver swap and called top-notch hospitals all around the state until she found one willing to do it.
“I have a very strong relationship with my mom,” said Aliana, a Gilroy resident who attends college at UC Santa Cruz, “and to not be able to do anything for her, seeing her go through treatments the way she did, it hurt a lot. I was really driven to find a way to help. I felt it was my responsibility as her daughter, but it was also something I felt like I could do.”
Overcome by tears, Deveza’s mother said she lived her whole life under an emotional cloud after her aunt died at age 29 from what she believes is the same hereditary kidney disease she has. The 43-year-old mother of two didn’t know if she would live long enough to have kids of her own, and if she did, whether she would see them grow to adulthood.
“When I came here to the U.S., I was pregnant with my son, and they detected some problem,” Deveza said. “As soon as I gave birth to my son, they did a kidney biopsy and they found that I had inflamed kidneys. So, for 14 years, I’ve been treated. Three years ago, they started failing. ... Before the transplant, I only had 5 or 6 percent kidney function.”
Doctors told Aliana she might one day also battle the disease, so she could not donate a kidney. It was Aliana who found an article suggesting the possibility that living donors unsuitable to donate one organ might be able to donate a different one. They could then look to set off a chain of donations that would end in getting the right organ for their loved one.
The transplant coordinators at UCSF worked for roughly 18 months trying to find a matching donor and recipient for the Devezas. Because of Aliana’s slight build, Roberts said, they had to find a matching recipient with a similar build.
It was Saragoza de Salinas, 52, who fit the bill. Of her condition at the time, the Woodlake resident said: “I was bloated. My skin was black. My toxins were really high, and my liver was failing. I had edema. I was 50 pounds heavier, just full of fluid and toxins, and I couldn’t think. I had encephalopathy. I had heart infections, blood infections, kidney infections.”
Simmons, who lives outside Boise, Idaho, said she knew her sister would die if she didn’t get the surgery. In fact, doctors had told Saragoza de Salinas just that. Still, their 87-year-old mother, Hope Saragoza, was scared to death that she would lose both her daughters if Simmons went under the knife.
“I said, ‘I won’t be able to stand it if both of you pass away,’ ” said Saragoza, who joined her daughters to meet the Devezas. “I didn’t know anything about transplants. Annie convinced me it was a good thing. She said, ‘Mom, if I don’t do this, she will die.’ ”
After the transplant, Saragoza de Salinas said, she was technically dead for 20 days. Her heart gave out, she said, and a machine had to keep her alive. When doctors finally revived her, she said, she was the world’s worst patient, trying to pull out cords and tubes.
Now, she said, she’s getting a taste of what it means to be normal: Her body used to need sleep, sleep and more sleep, but she now has energy that keeps her awake when daughters Juliana and Madeleine have tuckered out. She used to feel cold all the time, so the first time she got hot and started sweating, she responded with alarm. It was her giggling daughters who explained it to her.
But the biggest change that Saragoza de Salinas described is the sense of wonder that has replaced her sense of despair.
“I had already given up. I had already accepted death,” she said. “Now I’m amazed. I run errands. I go to the store. I walk and stare at people. I look at people and think, ‘Do you know I was dead six months ago?’ ”