Their kidneys – Daily News

Some gifts are timely. Others, timeless.

The gift that Debbie and Brad Thompson gave to Christine and Ron Morales is both.

The gift of living.

Seven years apart, Debbie and Brad each donated a kidney to Christine and Ron.

Christine, suffering from a debilitating genetic disorder, received Debbie’s left kidney in June 2015. Best friends since their school days at Webber Elementary in Westminster, Debbie didn’t hesitate to help Christine.

Then, this September, Brad gave his left kidney to Ron, whose Type 2 diabetes had forced him onto dialysis two years ago. When Ron went into kidney failure and needed a transplant, Brad instantly followed Debbie’s example.

“It is still unbelievable for us,” Christine said the other day.

The act of love from one couple to another is not lost on the medical personnel at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where the transplants took place.

Christine describes the special greeting she and Ron now get when they visit the west Los Angeles hospital: “Every time we go into Cedars, they go ‘There’s the couple.’”

Doctors at the Cedars-Sinai Comprehensive Transplant Center perform hundreds of organ transplants a year, hitting a record 573 in 2021. Of that number, 269 were kidney transplants.

For the surgeon who handled Ron’s transplant, Dr. Tsuyoshi Todo, the Thompson-Morales organ donations stand out as unique in his more than seven years at Cedars.

“This is the first time a husband and wife donated to another husband and wife,” Todo said.

Their lives have harmonized for decades. All four are 62, and each couple has three boys and a girl, who range in age from 38 to 30. They grew up and went to school in neighboring Westminster and Garden Grove.

Telling the story of the tight bond between the two families will never get old at the Morales household in Huntington Beach, where Christine, confessing to an extra burst of holiday cheer, outdid herself when decorating their home of 30 years this Christmas.

“We’re not tired of the story because Ron and I are so excited about the kidneys.”

Before their transplants, she added, “We were really sick.”

She gleefully named her donated organ “Little Deb.” But no namesake moniker has been attached to Ron’s gift kidney, out of deference to the no-fuss Brad.

Brad, dealing with flu-ish symptoms, was missing from the recent cozy scene in a corner of the Morales kitchen. Ron and Debbie sat to either side of Christine. A miniature marquee hung near a sparkling white artificial Christmas tree read, “Twas the Merriest Morales Ho Ho Home.”

Youngest child Kayli Morales bustled at the stove, baking treats and prepping for the tamale-making that night. Her father’s illness had been particularly tough the past two years, emotionally and financially, with the main breadwinner’s construction work disrupted by his kidney problems and his medical care by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It took a lot out on the family,” said Kayli, 30. “We’re really grateful for Debbie and Brad.”

Christine Morales and Debbie Thompson cheering at Westminster High School in 1977. Seven years ago, Debbie Thompson donated a kidney to her best friend, Christine Morales, and this past September, Debbie’s husband, Brad Thompson, donated a kidney to Chris’ husband, Ron Morales.(Photo Courtesy of Christine Morales)

Best friends forever

Given their history together, it’s not surprising that Debbie would offer one of her kidneys to Christine.

They became friends in 1968. Third grade. Back then, they were Christine Beltran and Debbie Grady, both 8 years old.

Christine was in the same classroom as Debbie’s twin sister. Debbie was in the class next door. But they all played together at recess.

The two girls formed a special bond that grew even stronger when they shared classrooms in fourth through sixth grades and became cheerleaders together in eighth grade at Warner Intermediate and during their last two years at Westminster High.

Debbie couldn’t put her finger on what it was that made them so inseparable. But they lived a short walk away from each other’s homes, often sleeping over. Debbie remembers going on vacations with the Christine’s family.

“Your mom and dad just took me in,” she said, gazing over at her friend.

Christine, who has two sisters, recalled how much she also wanted to be a sister to Debbie, who came from a family of five.

“I remember looking into her closet and saying, ‘Oh, let’s dress like twins!’”

They grew even closer in high school, adding “Ronnie,” as they called Ron back then, to the friendship when they were sophomores.

“We would go to lunch and talk, talk, talk,” Debbie added.

They both thought Ron was cute, but it was Christine, then 16, and Ron, 15 at the time, who began dating.

Teenage love did not disrupt the girlhood friendship.

“Wherever Chris was, Debbie was,” Ron said of those days. “And wherever Debbie was, Chris was.”

Well, except that time the two friends didn’t shop together for senior winter formal. That’s how they arrived at the dance wearing the same dress.

There was no drama. They burst out laughing.

Debbie went on dates with Christine and Ron. She didn’t meet Brad, who grew up in Garden Grove, until they were 21.

Their first apartment right out of high school was a two-bedroom on 11th Street in Garden Grove that they shared. Christine worked as an accountant for Canon business machines; Debbie was an office clerk at General Telephone.

Christine was the first to marry, in 1982, with Debbie as her maid of honor. A year later, Christine stood beside Debbie when she married.

The Moraleses moved to Riverside for 11 years. The two young moms remained close through phone conversations and occasional get-togethers. When the Morales family returned to Orange County and settled in Huntington Beach, they were a much closer drive to the Thompsons in Garden Grove.

Throughout their friendship, Christine and Debbie told each other everything. “Still do,” they chime together, now that they are grandparents.

Yet, when she got so sick from polycystic kidney disease, the genetic disorder first diagnosed in 1992, Christine said she hesitated about letting her best friend for life know how seriously ill she eventually became.

Through changes in her diet and regular exercise, she had managed to postpone the dialysis – or a kidney transplant — doctors said she would need in 20 years.

But in 2014, her grace period ran out. She couldn’t keep how dire her illness was from her best friend any longer. Christine was overly tired, her body swelling up, and her blood pressure was “out of whack.” Debbie could see it.

On a tearful walk along the Huntington Beach boardwalk, Christine let Debbie know she needed a kidney transplant. Debbie had a definitive response.

“I just said, ‘I’ll give you one.’”

Christine asked Debbie what blood type she was. They were both type O.

“She started crying again,” Debbie recalled.

It took another eight months between testing and other preparations before the operation could take place.

Christine Morales, right, and her husband, Ron Morales, with their friend, Debbie Thompson, center, in Huntington Beach, CA, on Friday, December 16, 2022. Seven years ago, Debbie Thompson donated a kidney to her best friend, Christine Morales, and this past September, Debbie's husband, Brad Thompson, donated a kidney to Chris' husband, Ron Morales. Brad Thompson is not pictured. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Christine Morales, right, and her husband, Ron Morales, with their friend, Debbie Thompson, center, in Huntington Beach, CA, on Friday, December 16, 2022. Seven years ago, Debbie Thompson donated a kidney to her best friend, Christine Morales, and this past September, Debbie’s husband, Brad Thompson, donated a kidney to Chris’ husband, Ron Morales. Brad Thompson is not pictured. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

So worn out with exhaustion, Christine stopped working in May 2015 as a director at Concordia University in Irvine where she handled contracts and event coordination.

Her operation a month later at Cedars-Sinai began at 6 a.m. and ended at midnight. Christine underwent two surgeries: one for the transplant and a second to regraft a vein from her leg to her new kidney because of a blood clot.

Debbie’s recovery took about three weeks. Christine needed a lot longer to get back to her active self and lose the fear that she might get sick again.

There was this nagging thought: “What if I lose this kidney, and it’s Debbie’s?”

Debbie would tell her, “That’s OK. If I knew you’d only have it for one hour, I’d do it all over again.”

Five years passed before Christine finally could say without hesitation, “OK, I can live life.” And, Debbie adds, “have a glass of wine.”

Christine then pursued a long-stalled dream: She got her master’s degree in education in 2017; she went back to work part time in 2019 as a youth job developer at Edison High.

“Little Deb” and the other kidney were functioning well. But then Ron was sick.

‘Spare body part’

Ron had been dealing with Type 2 diabetes for several years. He’d kept it under control with a single pill, avoiding the need for insulin. He was self-employed, doing concrete barrier work on the freeways that criss-cross the Southern California.

By 2020, the diabetes forced him to retire. There was financial stress, and then, worse, the sudden news he was in renal failure. At the start of the lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Ron was told to get to the emergency room during a Zoom call with his doctor.

More typically, the kidneys will gradually shut down, Ron said. “Mine just dropped all of a sudden.”

Christine had to leave him at the ER, alone.

He went on dialysis that August. He developed two hernias that had to be surgically repaired. A year later, an infection at the original site of the catheter required moving it from his stomach to his neck.

“He had a much harder time than me,” Christine said of her husband. She nearly lost him on three different occasions.

“I didn’t think he was going to get to the transplant.”

Ron was scared too. “But I just didn’t say anything.”

Brad’s decision to step up as a donor, shortly after hearing Ron needed a kidney transplant, was inspired by what he saw Debbie do for Christine.

“She was fine after she did it, so I didn’t worry too much about it or think too much about it,” Brad said.

The Thompsons talked it over – for all of a few minutes. Soon, Brad was dialing the phone for Ron, who was home alone that day.

“I’ll never forget Brad’s call,” Ron said. “He said ‘I hear you need a spare body part.’”

Ron didn’t understand at first. “He goes, ‘A kidney, dude. Do you need a kidney?’”

Brad swears he doesn’t recall this, but in any case, Ron continued, “I go, ‘Yeah.’ And off we went.”

The call took place in August 2021. Although the two men have different blood types, O positive and A positive, that wasn’t a roadblock. Ron was a little apprehensive, but doctors explained that a tissue match mattered most.

Still, Ron underwent a series of plasma infusions, necessary so that he wouldn’t reject Brad’s kidney.

For Brad, there was never any doubt or thought of backing out, he said, which he had the option to do right up until sedation for the surgery.

“When I was walking into the prep area, it hit me like, ‘This is real.’”

Brad walked on.

“After I told him he could have it, it was a done deal as far as I’m concerned.”

Need for donors

Dr. Todo performed the latest Thompson-Morales transplant on Sept. 23, 2022. It took about the average three hours.

Ron’s recovery – physically and emotionally – went a lot smoother than Christine’s. He popped out of his hospital bed the day after surgery when nurses came to weigh him. He says he’s feeling great now.

For both the Thompsons, recovery moved at about the same pace. A retired roofer, Brad was healthy and has had the free time needed to rest at home. Debbie, too, still works as an elementary school secretary.

Life is about the same for them post-operation, they said, although they can no longer take ibuprofen because it’s hard on the kidneys.

Because of their friends, Christine and Ron are among the lucky, Todo said.

Most transplant patients in Southern California wait eight to 10 years for a deceased person’s kidney, according to Todo.

Perhaps one-third of all kidney transplants are from living donors, he said. While there are about 18,000 kidney donors a year who made their wishes known before their deaths, living donors like Debbie and Brad number about 8,000.

The overall need far exceeds the number of donors. From a waiting list of about 100,000 patients, some 20,000 kidney transplants take place annually in the United States, Todo said.

“The donors are the real heroes.”

Todo confirmed Ron’s hardy prognosis. He is almost fully recovered, Todo said, and, since a kidney from a living donor can last 15 to 20 years, “He has a chance to live well into his 80s.”

Christine said she is looking forward to all that extra time with her high school sweetheart – and with lifelong bestie Debbie.

“We always wanted to be sisters,” Christine said. “Now we feel like we really are.”

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