GLENWOOD SPRINGS — April Carver didn’t have to think twice about an early wedding gift for daughter Carolyn and her fiance John Romero — the gift of a healthy life together in the new year.
Carver, who owns and operates the Hotel Denver in Glenwood Springs with her husband Steve Carver, recalls having dinner together with the couple last spring when conversation turned to Romero’s eventual need for a kidney transplant.
Romero, 33, from Denver, has suffered from Alport’s Syndrome, a condition that leads to kidney disease, since he was a baby.
He had been on the waiting list for either a cadaver or live kidney donation for nearly three years, and would soon need to start undergoing regular dialysis treatments until a match could be found.
“When he mentioned his blood type (Type O), I thought I might be a match,” April Carver said.
Without telling Romero what she was willing to do, in June she began traveling back and forth to Denver for a series of tests to see if she was a candidate to donate one of her kidneys to her future son-in-law.
“It was kind of a no-brainer when I learned how simple the procedure was and how little effect it would have on my own life and health,” she said.
Living kidney donations typically have a better success rate and greater longevity compared to transplants from persons who sign up to be a cadaver organ donor upon death.
Because the human body can adapt to using a single kidney, medically speaking, there’s little risk to removing the second kidney. The remaining kidney simply increases in size to compensate for the lost kidney, according to the National Kidney Foundation website (www.kidney.org).
“But they don’t let you do it unless you’re healthy,” Carver said of the lengthy process to be cleared for a living kidney transplant, including extensive bloodwork, an EKG, MRI and even a psychological test.
In the meantime, Romero and Carolyn Carver, who grew up in Glenwood Springs and graduated from Glenwood Springs High School in 2004, were officially engaged to be married on Aug. 30.
The following week, Romero, by then diagnosed with stage 5 kidney failure, started on a regimen of three to four weekly dialysis treatments, each lasting about four or five hours.
“I hated the idea of making John sit in dialysis all that time,” said Carolyn Carver, who knew what her mom was up to but didn’t want to say anything until they knew it was a sure thing.
“I started crying when she first told me. She’s a very strong woman, but everything made sense,” Carolyn said. “It was a pretty intense couple of months, but she just kept passing every test along the way.
“John was in dialysis when we told him the news,” she said.
“That was a pretty powerful moment, to hear I had a donor and it was my future mother-in-law,” Romero said.
He said he was lucky, compared to the length of time some of his family members had been in dialysis. The same hereditary condition afflicts several other members of his family, including his younger brother, Josh.
An uncle and two cousins each had cadaver transplants, but John’s is the first living kidney transplant in his family.
The transplant procedure was done on Oct. 28 at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Hospital in Denver by the University of Colorado Health transplant team.
What used to be a highly invasive operation, involving breaking ribs and cutting muscle to remove the kidney, is now done using laparoscopic (laser surgery) technology.
“I was in the hospital for three nights, and out seeing a movie on the fourth,” April said of the quick recovery for her part.
Carolyn and John met about four years ago while both worked at KOAA Channel 5, the NBC affiliate in Colorado Springs, he as a crime reporter and she as an investigative reporter and anchor.
They started dating about a year later. Romero said he was quick to make his health condition known.
“When you tell your brand new girlfriend what you’re going through, and she just shrugs it off, you know you’re dealing with your future wife right there,” Romero said.
Adds Carolyn, “It really wasn’t an issue for me. I was falling in love with him, and that’s unconditional. I know that if I were ever sick, he’d be there for me.”
Romero was born in Denver, where they both now work as public information officers, Carolyn for the Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder and Romero for the Wheatridge Police Department.
“We knew someday he would need a transplant or be on dialysis,” said Romero’s mother, Sharon Marquez, who also lives in Denver with her husband, Richard.
“We already had four members in our family receive kidney transplants due to Alport’s Syndrome, which were through deceased donors,” Marquez said. “These families’ decisions to donate their loved ones’ organs in their time of grief has saved the lives of our family members.”
She remembers that day in September when her son called to share the news.
“As he spoke, I could hear him holding back his tears, ‘April has been tested, is a match, and is going to give me one of her kidneys,’” Marquez said.
“We were overjoyed and at the same time overwhelmed with emotion. Our prayers had been answered,” she said. “In doing this selfless act, [April] has improved and enhanced his life in so many ways.”
Romero said he had considered making a plea for a live kidney donation, even drafting a letter to post on Facebook at one point.
“But I could never bring myself to put it out there,” he said “To ask someone to do something like that is easier said than done, and I felt selfish even asking.”
To learn that his future mother-in-law was willing to do that for him without even having to ask was “the best wedding present we could have ever gotten,” he and Carolyn agreed.
“I was always very peaceful with it,” April said of her decision. “I never at any time had second thoughts.”
Romero was off work for about six weeks while recovering from the transplant procedure.
In the meantime, he said the Wheatridge PD was extremely supportive, allowing him to take extra time off, even though he had only been there since March. Some of his co-workers even donated some of their vacation time so that Romero could take the time he needed.
“They were just amazing, they even sent flowers to the hospital room after the surgery,” Romero said.
April said her husband, Steve, was also supportive from the beginning, and her other two daughters, Crystal and Cheree, also gave their blessing.
Carolyn, 28, credits her mom with her own compassion and strength to get through it.
“The scariest moment was having two of the most important people in my life in surgery at the same time,” she said.
Amid preparing for the transplant procedure, April’s older daughter, Crystal, was married in September.
“We gave my mom a Wonder Woman costume to wear in the hospital,” Carolyn said.
She and John have set their wedding date for July 6, 2014, in Denver, and her younger sister, Cheree, also has wedding plans.
“We are all just in awe of what a wonderful person our mom is,” Carolyn said. “It just seemed like it came so easy for her, like, ‘Why wouldn’t I do this for my daughter and future son-in-law?”
Added Romero, “Now we’re not having to plan our honeymoon around the dialysis clinic.”
Because April is 55 and he is 33, there is a good chance he will need another kidney transplant later in life, he said.
“To go on dialysis when you feel like you’re just starting your life, that’s pretty tough to swallow,” Romero said. “Now, after the transplant, I feel like I haven’t felt in 10 years, it’s just amazing.”
Carolyn said she hopes their story will convince others to consider live kidney donation, whether it’s for a loved one, a friend, or even a stranger who needs a transplant and a chance for a better life.
“If anyone feels like they are in position to save someone’s life, please, consider doing it, it’s so worth it,” she said. “And the chances of living a long life after a live kidney donation is so much better.”
“I still can’t quite wrap my head around it,” adds her husband-to-be. “I not only found the love of my life, I found someone in her family to give me another chance in life.”
For more information about living organ and other transplant options, visit the CU Medical Center website, www.uch.edu/conditions/transplant-services/, or the National Kidney Foundation at www.kidney.org.