Ravaged by renal failure and dialysis, John Medrano ’90 was worn out and resigned to death. As he neared the inevitable, he found a donor from an unlikely source — classmate Hazel Rhodes Thomas ’90.
by Rick Waters '95
After a close friendship at TCU, Hazel Rhodes Thomas ’90 and John Medrano ’90 reconnected through social media after losing touch for 16 years. Now they’re linked forever after a life-saving kidney transplant. (Photography by Glen E. Ellman)
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by Rick Waters '95
John Medrano ’90 was prepared for the end.
He’d suffered from chronic kidney ailments since his senior year at TCU and had a history of complications with his urinary system. His heart was wrung out from years of hypertension, he was gaining weight and he endured extreme bouts of fatigue. Pounding headaches never seemed to cease.
But he managed the pain quietly, choosing to keep his ailments to himself.
Unmarried, he had told his immediate family and shared scant details with a few co-workers but no one else. It was his own private battle.
Dialysis was keeping him alive, but not any life he wanted. For the past two-and-a-half years, he had sat through regular four-hour sessions with a 16-gauge needle stuck in his arm, watching his blood being filtered a drop at a time, stripped of excess fluid. He felt dehydrated, dried out, lifeless.
“I’d walk in feeling bad and leave feeling bad,” Medrano remembers. “It was not much relief. Basically, it was life support.”
By May 2012, he had reached a threshold. There were no more “good days.”
Twelve months earlier, he had approached his doctors and said that he was giving his condition a year to improve. It hadn’t, and he wasn’t interested in going on much longer.
“They said, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Yes, I can. It’s my life. I haven’t taken this lightly. I’ve done the research. I’ve prayed about it, and I’ve done a lot of soul-searching. I’m comfortable with the decision.’ ”
No matter what, he would quit dialysis on New Year’s Day 2013. Either he would get a transplant by the end of the year, or he would prepare for his last days.
But more importantly, in those remaining months, he’d put aside his pride and seek his friends’ help, asking them to consider taking kidney donor compatibility tests. Maybe one of them was a match.
* * *
Hazel Rhodes Thomas ’90 met Medrano at Paschal High School in Fort Worth in 1982 when they were both freshmen. They had English together and later marched in the band. He played the trumpet; she, the xylophone. For four years, they would pal around together with four or five other friends.
When it came time for college, they both picked hometown TCU, but neither figured they would see one another much. Yet at 8 a.m. on the first day of class of the fall 1986 semester, they found themselves in Macroeconomics. In the spring, they’d sit together in Microeconomics.
“We only had those two classes together,” remembers Thomas, now a hospital chaplain at Texas Institute for Rehabilitation & Research Memorial Hermann in Houston. “But we got through it together. We sort of survived together.”
After that, their paths diverged. She pursued finance. He majored in political science. On Saturdays, though, they’d meet up at TCU football games and cheer on Jim Wacker’s slowly improving Horned Frogs.
Both graduated in 1990 and stayed in the Fort Worth-Dallas area. By 1993, Medrano moved to Austin for work, and in an era before social media and email, they lost touch. Sixteen years went by before they connected again. He sent her a friend request on Facebook, and immediately, their kinship picked up again as if they were sitting together at Amon G. Carter Stadium. And, as they discovered, they’d been at a lot of the same TCU games over those lost years and never known it.
In June 2010, Medrano announced that he was coming to Fort Worth for a weekend with friends. Thomas, who had moved to Houston, agreed to meet the group. Over dinner at Mama’s Pizza on Berry Street, the two bonded, and Medrano confided that he had had some health issues.
At the time, he had been on dialysis for about 18 months, but he wasn’t yet eligible for a transplant.
By the end of the night as they were saying goodbye, the two stopped outside the front door, and he opened up about the pain, his bleak outlook and the growing sense of hopelessness.
As she listened, a sensation came over Thomas. She felt God was telling her in that moment that she was going to be Medrano’s donor.
“I said to John, ‘When you’re ready, I’m your match,’ ” she recalls. “I just left it at that because I knew he wasn’t ready.”
He wasn’t. Medrano knew the realities. They weren’t related, nor the same ethnicity, so the odds were long that she could help him.
“But she said it with such certainty that it always stuck in my head,” he says.
In the months after that meeting, Thomas kept checking on her old friend and continued to ask how he wanted to spend his time.
“Let’s go to TCU games,” he told her. So they did. Home games. Road trips. The 2011 Rose Bowl. It was just like college all over again.
When Medrano finally reached his breaking point in May 2012, he sent a mass email to his friends about how and where to get tested. When she received it, Thomas waited for two months to see if others could help.
“I just let it sit,” she remembers. “I wanted to make sure. I talked about it with my husband, Phil (MDiv ’98), and we prayed about it. I knew that once I started the process, it would end in donation. That’s the only way it would go. I just wanted to make sure.”
By July, Thomas submitted testing paperwork unbeknownst to Medrano, not wanting to give him false hope. A month after that, the transplant team at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio called to say that initial signs were positive for her results. Next up: more blood work and lab tests.
Meanwhile, other friends had been tested and rejected. Some had hypertension. Some discovered they were diabetic. Some were simply not a match. Each called John with the bad news.
“In a strange sort of way, my condition helped people,” Medrano recalls. “They learned about their own health issues that they didn’t know they had.”
By late August, Thomas could hardly wait any longer, and she called Medrano to tell him that she had been tested and was a willing donor.
“I debated,” she says. “I didn’t want to tell him at first because I was afraid that I would be one more person who dangled it out there that I might be a match. But I also wanted him to know that I had gone forward.”
Medrano wasn’t sure how to feel.
“Part of me was happy, part of me was not,” he says. “I was really torn. Because if she was a match, my friend was going to have surgery because of me. But I really wanted my quality of life to improve considerably. It was emotionally draining.”
Then came Aug. 31. It was a Friday, and Thomas had taken the day off, anxious for answers. She went shopping as a distraction. While in the mall, she got an email from the transplant team asking her to call.
“They said, ‘You’re John’s compatible donor match,’ ” she remembers. She’d need to prepare for more tests. But it was time to tell the patient.
Fearful of giving false hope, Thomas wanted to do the tests first.
“They said, ‘No, you’re the match. This is just to make sure everyone is ready for surgery.’ ”
They would let John know.
Thomas interrupted: “No, I want to tell John!”
Medano was busy at work when the phone rang, and he actually missed the call. But at exactly 1:50 p.m., he remembers, he dialed back.
The two rambled through small talk and idle chatter about seeing the next TCU football game, in his mind, just delaying the inevitable bad news.
When the conversation hit a lull, Medrano quickly tried to say goodbye. “Then she said, ‘Well, the real reason why I called was,’ — and I thought, Oh, here it goes — ‘I am your compatible donor match!’ ”
He didn’t believe her. Despite her insistence, he still wasn’t convinced.
Finally, he could hold out no more. His voice cracked: “You really don’t have to do this.”
Dabbing his swollen eyes, he was instantly taken back to the chat outside the pizza shop. Hazel had been right.
“I really felt like God had put it in my heart,” Thomas remembers. “It’s one of those unexplainable things. I just knew I would be his match. “And I was very grateful for the reassurance. If God hadn’t impressed this upon me, this would have been a much scarier process. But I’ve never been scared — not even the day of surgery. God had given me peace. Without it, I might have considered backing out.”
Finally, the surgery was set: 10-11-12 — a once-in-a-lifetime date for a once-in-a-lifetime surgery.
In the immediate hours before the procedure, the two never saw one another, and Medrano had cold feet. Thomas, though, was rock steady. They texted.
Medrano: Do you want to just go get breakfast and call it a day?
Thomas: I’m starving!! Let’s get this over with!
Their TCU connection also remained strong. When nurses wheeled him into the operating room, Medrano flashed the Frog hand sign. Down the hall, Thomas wore a purple shirt with the word BELIEVE.
“Part of the reason we think we were such a good match was purple blood was already running through us,” he joked to doctors.
Today, Medrano has three kidneys and two ureters inside his body — the only organs that work used to belong to Thomas. Amazingly, his lone working kidney had decreased to less than 2 percent efficiency and had only a few months before it shriveled and was useless.
Months after the procedure, both learned of how unlikely the surgery had been. Most kidney transplants require matches on at least three of six markers for compatibility. Medrano and Thomas had just one.
“It was confirmation for me and John that this was all God. It really wasn’t us,” she says.
With the help of anti-rejection medication, the doctors made it work. Medrano, who now works as litigation assistant at BNSF Railway Co., will take those meds for the rest of his life. The transplanted kidney possibly could give him 30 more years.
He’s already enjoyed one.
“I feel a lot stronger every day,” he says. “I’m a lot more active than I used to be. It’s a complete turnaround. It’s amazing how fast.”
This weekend at Homecoming, Medrano and Thomas will mark the anniversary of the procedure by meeting on campus for the TCU-Kansas football game, where TCU Athletics and Community Trust Bank will recognize them as part of the Hometown Heroes theme.
“I told Hazel that I would take care of her kidney,” Medrano says. “It’s a promise I made, and it’s a promise I intend to keep. It was a huge sacrifice on her part. It took a person with a lot of heart and a lot of trust in God to give a part of herself the way she did.”
Thomas says she just always knew.
“Everything about me told me I had to do it, and I wanted to do it. For me, it was answering the call.”
According to the National Kidney Foundation, more than 26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease. It is the ninth leading cause of death in the U.S. More than 15,000 Americans received kidney transplants in 2012, yet more than 80,000 are on a wait list. To learn how to get tested, go to kidney.org or donatelifetexas.org.
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