David Rodriguez grew up in a housing project in Brownsville, Texas. At 16 years old, he enrolled in a program for at-risk youth that allowed him to work part-time while earning his high school diploma. Through the program, he was hired by the Texas Employment Commission as an office clerk and discovered that he enjoyed working in an office environment. After completing the program and earning his GED, he quickly found full-time work in local government positions. He worked for the utility company, post office, District Clerk, and County Court at Law Judge.
His interests grew in politics and legislation, and he moved to Austin, where he was hired as a Grand Jury Clerk. Eventually, he moved into the private sector and became a Legal Assistant for three law firms in criminal, asbestos, and personal injury law.
In 2007, David worked long hours and enjoyed his life in the capital city of Texas. He had a successful career, a great place to live, a new car, a romantic relationship, and he traveled. However, fatigue and exhaustion set in, and David began to experience anxiety and stress. He also started to have severe cramps in his legs in the middle of the night. At the time, David was between work and was not insured, so he made a doctor’s appointment for a few months down the road when he would have health benefits again.
In 2008, before David could have that doctor’s appointment, he experienced extreme abdominal pain while at his desk at work. He had been laughing and joking with his co-workers, and at first thought that was the reason for his pain. Suddenly, he felt like he was having a heart attack and his co-worker drove him to the hospital.
At the emergency room (ER), the doctors first treated David for dehydration. They started him on IV fluids and did many blood tests. When the bloodwork results came back an hour later, David could see from the doctor’s face that he did not have good news. The ER doctor told David that he had stage 5 kidney disease and would need to begin dialysis.
David knew a little bit about dialysis because his uncle was on dialysis and had recently passed away. When he got this news for himself, at 36 years old, he saw it as a death sentence. Kidney disease was an unknown to David and the thought of dialysis scared him. He recalls how hard it was to call his parents to tell them the bad news.
David’s father, Gilberto, took a 7-hour bus ride from Brownsville to Austin to be with David. His dad was there to see the emergency catheter put in for the first 3-hour dialysis session. David recalls crying a lot with his dad by his side. “When it happens to you, your mind goes blank. It was really difficult for me to accept,” he said. David later found out that undiagnosed, untreated high blood pressure had caused his kidneys to fail.
Within two months, David was able to get on the kidney transplant list at University Hospital in San Antonio, however, was told the waitlist could be four or more years. David moved from his apartment in Austin back to his parents’ home in Brownsville and started in-center hemodialysis three days a week. Dialysis was exhausting and depressing for him. He was the youngest patient at his clinic at the time. He felt like there was much more he wanted to do, and his life was being cut short.
“I do say now kidney failure is a blessing, not a curse. I would not be the man I am now without it,” David said.
A few months later, Gilberto also experienced kidney failure due to diabetes. Gilberto’s doctor, who he traveled to see in Mexico, prescribed he wrong diabetes medication. Now with both father and son on dialysis, they developed a new dialysis routine together, which David remembers today as a special time. They would wake up at five a.m. and go to Whataburger to have coffee and biscuits, then go to their separate hemodialysis centers. This became a tradition for them and something to look forward to before dialysis.
As a dialysis patient, David noticed things at his center that could use improvement, including patients afraid to speak up about their care. This is where David’s interest in patient advocacy was born. He knew that every patient deserved to be heard and should not be scared to speak up about their care. David and another dialysis patient at his center started the center’s first support group. Sadly, that patient passed away. The experience made David a more vigorous advocate, and he began being more vocal for patients. He then joined the National Kidney Foundation (NKF)/Texas Kidney Foundation Kidney Walk, where he shared his kidney story and raised money for kidney disease awareness.
After two years in Brownsville, David moved to San Antonio to be closer to the hospital, where he hoped for a transplant and to get more involved with the support group there. It was a four-hour move, and David was living on disability checks, but if he got a call for a deceased donor, he wanted to be close to the hospital. In 2010, he moved into a small, empty apartment in San Antonio and slept on an air mattress, waiting and praying for that call. David says he was “in survival mode.” It was often difficult to live and feed himself on his low income, and he resorted to cheap fast-food deals. He began to learn how to cook using low-cost ingredients, including onions, tomatoes, peppers, beans, and rice.
Ten months after moving to San Antonio, in July of 2011, David got a call from his transplant coordinator. At first, she wanted to confirm David went to the dentist to get his wisdom teeth removed, as they had discussed on a previous call. David confirmed. Then, she told David the good news: in two weeks, he would be getting a kidney transplant. “That is when I first heard about the Paired Exchange Program, and I dropped to my knees praying in disbelief and joy,” David said. He found out that a son-in-law wanted to donate his kidney to his mother-in-law on dialysis, but they were not a match, so he signed up for the Paired Exchange Program. Meanwhile, an altruistic donor who came forward was a match for the mother-in-law, and the son-in-law was found to be an identical match for David.
The kidney transplant surgery took place on August 4, 2011, and was a success for all. David was also able to meet his donor a week before the surgery and promised him that he would do all he could to continue advocating for kidney patients.
About one month after surgery, David spoke about his transplant at the University Hospital support group he had attended before his transplant. He was asked if he had any advice, to which David replied, “I do what my healthcare team tells me to do.” David credits following doctors’ advice for getting him on the transplant list quickly, and keeping him on it, so he could receive the first transplant available to him. David started to be known as “Super Dave” with his fellow patients, a nickname given to him by a close friend 25 years earlier.
Post-transplant surgery, David planned to go back to his old lifestyle in Austin before finding out about a position at University Hospital in San Antonio as a patient navigator. David applied for the position, however, while interviewing with the hiring director, David’s dad fell ill and was hospitalized. David was interrupted at the interview to take the call from his brother about Gilberto’s condition, but decided to stay and finished the interview. By the time David flew back to Brownsville, it was too late–he was already in a coma. David whispered to his dad while in the coma and saw a tear from his eye. He knows his dad heard him say those final words–“I’m here, Dad.” Gilberto was just 68 years old when he passed away. During the funeral, David received a call and was offered the job. He walked up to his dad in his coffin and told him he got the job, promising to help kidney patients in his memory.
About six months after his transplant, David started feeling ill. His nephrologist did a CT scan and found a stone in his bile duct. David had already had his gallbladder removed about two years earlier, but learned the stone may have been from the gallbladder not being cleared properly. From 2012-2014, David was in and out of the hospital almost 30 times with a high fever, abdominal pain, and chills, and had to undergo more testing. Despite being sick, he kept his sense of humor and still wanted to help people.
In 2013, David resigned from his job due to illness, however, continued to volunteer at the hospital. In 2014, David had a successful bile duct bi-pass surgery, and by 2016, started working at the hospital again. He also continued to advocate for patients outside of work. David joined the American Association of Kidney Patients (AAKP) in May 2017 and became an AAKP Ambassador to continue his advocacy work.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, David had to start working from home due to his vulnerability as a kidney transplant recipient.
Unexpectedly in 2021, David started to feel ill again. His doctor told him that the bile stones were now getting into his liver. He would need a liver transplant as soon as possible and was given one year to live. According to David, liver transplants are much different from kidney transplants, and go by a model for end-stage liver disease (MELD) score. Patients with a higher MELD score are the sickest and able to get on top of the transplant list much faster because their liver starts to lose function completely.
David became very depressed at first, as once again, life threw him a curve ball. He had to find a way to be “Super Dave” again. David did not want to post on social media at the time about his need for a liver transplant, and shared the devastating news with family and close friends only. A friend of Dave’s who he has known for 25 years stepped forward to donate, but his liver was not approved for a living donor transplant due to its size. David got on the list for a deceased donor and was motivated to be as healthy as possible so when a transplant came, he would be in the best condition he could. He began going to the gym regularly and gained confidence that a transplant would happen. Additionally, he started looking into adopting a dog. Then, out of the blue, right before the holidays, he received a call from the hospital’s living donor coordinator. She told him he was one of two patients who qualified for a paired exchange donation from an anonymous living donor that had come forward to save a loved one. She asked him to stay in quarantine until further notice. It was Christmas time, but he agreed to do whatever she said.
On January 3, the coordinator called him back with good news–he was chosen for the transplant over the other patient due to a better match and compliance. David had liver transplant surgery on January 6, 2022. It was a long ten-hour surgery. David has what is called a “Mercedes cut” on his stomach from the surgery. He received a significant portion of the donor’s liver and recovery was slow, but went extremely well. His kidney was not affected by the transplant at all, and he was released from the hospital within one week. Now, his new liver is nearly full size and doing great.
David is excited about the future and continues to advocate for patients any chance he gets. He attended this year’s World Transplant Games in San Diego, California, and hopes to participate in the Transplant Games as a golfer in the future.
October is National Liver Transplant Awareness Month
David says that liver transplants get a bad reputation because people assume you are an alcoholic. He believes that everyone deserves a second chance, and in many cases, there are other reasons why one may need a new liver, including non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, liver cancer, hepatitis, or isolated cases like his. David encourages you to learn more about liver health and transplantation for National Liver Transplant Awareness Month, and wants to share these facts about liver disease in the state of Texas according to the American Liver Foundation:
• 4,930 Texans died of liver disease in 2020
• 3,726 Texans have liver cancer.
• 845 liver transplants were performed in 2021 with 1,340 people currently on the waiting list and 125 people who died waiting.
• 12.1% of adults in Texas have diabetes.
• 70.2% of adults are overweight or obese.
• 25.4% of adults have no leisure-time physical activity.
• 1 serving of fruit is consumed daily on average by adults in Texas.
• 1.6 servings of vegetables are consumed daily on average by adults in Texas.
National Liver Awareness Month Information: