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Connected Forever by Love, Kidneys, and Paintings: The Kidney Journey of Gabriel and Melissa Delgado

Gabriel and Melissa married in Half Moon Bay, California, in 2007 after many years of friendship and dating. The two moved to San Antonio, Texas, shortly after, where they had two children and successful careers. Gabriel worked in the arts, and Melissa worked in the tourism industry. Gabriel’s art career would eventually bring the family to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2018.

Melissa’s Kidney Disease Diagnosis
In 2021, at Melissa’s annual wellness checkup, she was alerted by her doctor that she had high blood pressure and loss of kidney function. Her doctor referred her to a nephrologist, who confirmed that she had stage-three kidney disease. Melissa underwent testing to try to determine the cause of her kidney function decline. 

Many things were ruled out, including genetics, autoimmune diseases such as lupus, and COVID (she tested negative for COVID-19). Her diagnosis was ultimately determined as an unknown acute kidney injury (AKI). Continuing to work full-time, Melissa did not feel sick or have any pain, but her kidney function continued to decline, leading her to learn about her dialysis and transplantation options. Even though Melissa did not need dialysis at this time, she chose to proactively begin training for nocturnal home hemodialysis while her healthcare team searched for more answers about her health. She also did what she could to preserve the kidney function she still had by adjusting her diet. Under medical supervision, Melissa began a strict, low protein vegan diet in hopes it would help extend the life of her native kidneys.

In 2023, after moving into stage four kidney disease, Melissa’s nephrologist informed her she was eligible for a kidney transplant, and encouraged her to look for a living kidney donor. Her 82-year-old mother was the first to step forward. Gabriel and many other family members, including an aunt and niece, also volunteered to be tested.

A Perfect Match
Not thinking he would be a match for his wife, Gabriel wanted to be tested first so he would know the process and could walk any family member through it. When his results were in, Gabriel was found to be the perfect match for Melissa. He recalls that they were very excited and happy but also skeptical. They did not understand how it was possible to be each other’s perfect match and asked the doctors to show them the data to see how the match was determined. The transplant team was willing to show them the data and how the process worked in laymen’s terms. Their doctor printed cross-match numbers so they could see how they were a perfect match.

Melissa remembers the news being bittersweet. It was wonderful that she would not have to go dialysis and search for another kidney donor, but she was reluctant for them both to have major surgery simultaneously with two children, ages 10 and 14, at home that needed care.

After speaking with their care teams, Gabriel and Melissa realized that it was meant to be, and they scheduled their surgeries for June 26, 2023.

Surgery and Recovery
As the end of June approached, so did hurricane season, and two storms had them worried. Doctors reassured the couple that the hospital was the safest place to be during storms, but Melissa was concerned about her children at home who were being cared for by family members.

Additionally, during pre-surgery testing, Melissa’s sodium level was determined to be too low for surgery, and she would need to have a dialysis treatment to have her sodium level corrected. She reluctantly agreed to do the dialysis treatment but remained unsure. She now says that dialysis easily resolved her sodium issue, and she is glad that she chose to listen to the doctors. This would be the only dialysis treatment Melissa would need. On June 28, 2023, they underwent successful surgeries.

Recovery for Gabriel was a little more difficult than he expected as his body was getting used to the removal of an organ. He planned to use his two weeks of vacation time from work for the surgery and recovery but ended up needing an additional week off. The art gallery where he worked was very generous and allowed him to take the extra time he needed. Due to the multiple incisions and staples, Gabriel said he experienced a lot of pain and took prescription pain medication for a few days before being able to switch to acetaminophen.

Meanwhile, Melissa was not in as much pain from the transplant surgery and did not require a prescription pain medication. However, she recalls that her energy level did not bounce back as quickly as Gabriel’s seemed to. Additionally, she needed a blood transfusion during surgery, which led to a rejection scare about a month after the procedure. After a week in the hospital, doctors eliminated all the rejection antibodies. 

Gabriel’s Art Inspired by His Living Kidney Donor Journey
Today, the couple is doing great and are excited to share their journey with others through Gabriel’s artwork. The living donor journey inspired Gabriel to create a new body of art, which he named “Sacrifice”. His contemporary paintings feature mathematical equations based on scientific facts and this series reflects how he was feeling throughout the process of becoming a living kidney donor to Melissa.

“As an artist, for me to process this, it had to be through my artwork. It was the catharsis of my healing.” Some of the pieces in the “Sacrifice” series include “Together We Can Conquer Anything” and “You Are the One In Which I See the Truth of Love and Its Healing Effects on Mankind”. Each piece is a one-sentence love poem. “We want to share our personal narrative as advocates for the living donor narrative in a way these love poems are universal. So, you can see the message in the equation and see that it relates to you, your husband or wife, your significant other. We want to project our blessing out into the world,” Gabriel said.

The “Sacrifice” art series helps raise funds for transplant patients and debuted at Art Miami with Burgess Modern + Contemporary in December 2023. A percentage of the proceeds generated from the sale were donated to The Memorial Transplant Institute in Hollywood, Florida, and The National Kidney Donation Organization (NKDO) in honor of their tireless work.