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The Philadelphia Inquirer

Couple Happy To End A Shared Experience Dialysis Is Over For Him, But It Continues For Her.

By Michael Vitez

March 20, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved. 

The alarm went off Tuesday at 5 a.m.

Damaries Rodriguez nudged her husband, Luis Veguilla.

"Time to get up," she said.

Damaries always has to wake Luis for their date. He's usually exhausted. He works full-time as a prison guard, the 3-to-11 shift.

Yet every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday since July, husband and wife have gone together - for kidney dialysis.

Both suffer from kidney failure.

Luis is 32. Damaries, 25. On Monday night, as usual, they dropped off their son, Bryan, 6, with Grandma. She would take him to kindergarten.

Tuesday's trip to dialysis would be different - their last together.

In addition, they would be taking along Luis' brother, Angel, 37. He was dressed by 5:30 a.m., eating Rice Krispies.

Angel had flown in from Puerto Rico - leaving behind his pregnant wife and four children - to donate a kidney to Luis.

The trio left the house on Frankford Avenue in North Philadelphia before 6, the dawn breaking and beautiful. They stopped at a drive-through on their way to Northeastern Hospital on Allegheny Avenue. Luis and Damaries would drink their pink lemonades during dialysis.

Damaries was hooked up first. She sat in the recliner, rolled up her left sleeve. Her arm was swollen and bruised.

She looked off into the middle distance, winced slightly, as the first fat needle went in.

"After a time," said technician Wanda Romero, "it becomes grueling."

Luis gave his wife a pillow and covered her with a sheet he brought from home. Then he took his usual spot three chairs away. Husband and wife cannot sit side by side. Their doctor had to beg that they even be allowed to come on the same days. If something were to go wrong - say, a heart attack - staff wouldn't want one to see the other.

Luis and Damaries met in 1994 in Arroyo, Puerto Rico. She was 16, he 22. He came to visit his sister, who lived next door to Damaries. She fell in love first, telling his sister, "¡Que lindo!" How handsome.

Luis worked as a prison guard in Puerto Rico. In 1999, they vacationed in Philadelphia to visit her mother. Luis returned home to work, but Damaries stayed. Two days later, she went into intensive care.

She suffered from a rare disease in which her immune system attacked her own kidneys. The disease took three years to reach the point where she needed dialysis.

E. Jennifer Weil is the kidney specialist who cares for Damaries. She calls Damaries - one of her first patients - "my baby." The doctor wept last year when Damaries finally needed dialysis.

"Here is this totally beautiful young mother with a young family," Weil said.

In May, Luis showed up in Weil's office - alone. His feet had been swelling. His blood pressure soaring. Weil knew Luis well. He'd always brought Damaries to her appointments and helped translate because his English is better. He'd also been bringing her to dialysis. When Weil saw his blood work - in particular, his creatinine level - she cried again.

"It was heartbreaking to see the husband and the wife," Weil said.

Weil worried initially about some sort of epidemic. It seemed beyond belief: a husband and wife, so young, developing similar and extremely rare forms of kidney disease. But she found no connection.

"To me, it looks random," she said.

Back in January 2002, when Damaries began dialysis, Weil was hoping a relative would come forward and donate a kidney. "But nobody really matched," Weil said.

Last July, when Luis went on dialysis, Angel flew to Philadelphia immediately to be tested.

"Angel truly is going to be their angel," Weil said. "He's a hero for this whole family."

Incredibly, Angel's kidney was a match for Luis and Damaries.

Luis wanted his wife to get it.

"I would have rather she take the kidney," he explained from the dialysis chair. "She came to dialysis first. She should have a transplant first. And she's the mom. The boy needs a mom. He needs a father, too. He needs both. But I think a son needs a mother more."

Damaries was firm.

"El primero," she reiterated Tuesday. "Him first."

Luis believes that his wife just isn't ready. But once she sees how well his transplant goes, she will agree to one herself. Her brothers were too young last year to be donors - but the family hopes they will be tested soon.

Angel sat with Luis and with Damaries Tuesday during dialysis. The first time he watched this, last summer, he pledged to Luis: "I will get you out of here."

Damaries finished first on Tuesday, then Luis, who received dialysis through a catheter in his chest. The technician disconnected him from the machine. "All right," he said, standing up, "that's it." He was hardly full of joy. "I'd rather she be out, too," he said of Damaries.

Michael Gallimore, 45, a former Greyhound bus driver, one of the regulars sitting between Luis and Damaries, stuck out his fist as Luis passed on his way out. "I'll be praying for you," he said.

Luis bumped his fist on top of the bus driver's. "Thanks, man."

Surgery went well yesterday at Temple University Hospital for Angel and Luis. Weil said the new kidney could last Luis 25 years, maybe longer. Damaries will be back in dialysis this morning - by herself.

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