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February 13, 2009

A Gift Returned: It's brother's turn to receive kidney after long illness

Two decades ago, Roland Tellez gave one of his kidneys to save his brother's life and spare his mother from watching her son die. Several years later, however, Tellez was in need of a transplant. His remaining kidney had failed, taking away his body's ability to eliminate toxins.

Two decades ago, Roland Tellez gave one of his kidneys to save his brother's life and spare his mother from watching her son die.

Several years later, however, Tellez was in need of a transplant. His remaining kidney had failed, taking away his body's ability to eliminate toxins.

His 12 brothers and sisters were thrilled late last month when a donor network organ became available for the 51-year-old Modestan. He underwent the transplant Jan. 30 at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco and returned home Feb. 5.

"It has been a long struggle," said Robert Tellez, Roland's youngest brother. "We are hoping everything goes fine and we get our brother back."

The Tellez family wasn't surprised when Roland volunteered to donate a kidney when his older brother John became seriously ill in the 1980s.

Roland has a giving personality and is known for serenading people with mariachi songs on their birthdays, his family said. He also was close with his older brother, having followed in his footsteps to work in the restaurant industry.

"I did it for John and my mother," said Roland, who worked as an assistant chef or carpenter for most of his adult life. "I wanted my mother to live out her days knowing that all of her children were living."

Evidence has shown it's uncommon for live donors to suffer kidney failure. A study published last month in the New England Journal of Medicine, which reviewed 3,698 kidney donors over 44 years, concluded they had the same life expectancy and risk of kidney disease as the general population.

Both of Roland's kidneys appeared healthy before the 1988 transplant, and it's not entirely clear why the second one started to fail 10 years ago. He admits he didn't take proper care of his health and took a lot of over-the-counter ibuprofen to salve his aching knees and other joints when he worked as a carpenter.

"I was taking pills to hold on to my job and support my family," he said. "That wasn't good for the kidney."

His bout with kidney failure was hard for his brothers, sisters and six daughters to watch. The symptoms included lethargy, shortness of breath, anemia, and swelling in the legs and ankles.

The three-days-a-week treatments at the Central Modesto Satellite Dialysis Center left him exhausted.

"It got so bad I had toxic fluid in my lungs," Roland said. "My lungs burned all the time. I had to sleep sitting up with my back against two pillows or I couldn't breathe."

Tellez was on the national organ donor waiting list for seven years. He turned down requests from his daughters and other family members to donate a kidney. He was afraid they would have problems, too.

Four months ago, he was told by the California Pacific transplant center that he was near the top of the waiting list and could receive a call at any time.

Finally, the call

The call came at 4:45 a.m. Jan. 30. He made an emotional telephone call to his youngest brother, and then his nephew, Rick Tellez, rushed him to San Francisco.

Roland almost had to face the transplant operation alone, despite his large family. His nephew had a prior commitment and had to leave as Roland underwent final tests to ensure compatibility with the donated organ. Roland is separated from his wife, and the short notice didn't give other family members much time to get to the hospital.

He was feeling depressed when he heard a husky voice on the other side of the curtain in his room sing the verses to "Cuatro Vidas," a song his father used to sing to his mother. It was another nephew, Ricardo Vasquez of Houston, who happened to be visiting in the Bay Area and heard his uncle was in the hospital.

Roland said he felt the presence of his late parents in the room and then received a string of calls from his brothers and sisters. As he was wheeled to surgery, Roland and his nephew sang all the way to the operating room.

"It lifted my spirits," he said. "I realized everything was going to be OK."

He returned home after seven days in the hospital, and on Feb. 6 was visiting with family in the garage of brother Eddie's home in Ceres. He talked on the phone with John, who was in a hospital in Rockford, Ill.

"He was very excited about it," said Mary Tellez, John's wife, speaking from the Illinois hospital. "It was a dream come true for him, because his brother has done a lot for him. We were just overwhelmed that everything came out all right."

Roland's kidney worked well for his brother for six years, then John received a transplanted kidney from Mary. At age 58, his health problems continue.

Family members are allowing Roland to recuperate before celebrating. Eddie Tellez plans to have him over for a barbecue and his brothers are eager to take him fishing. A family reunion is being planned in Texas.

On Monday, he went back to the dialysis center, where he was known for joking with patients and doing other things to cheer people up.

Scott Speidel, clinical manager of the center, said he was glad to see him get a kidney after being sick for years.

"He was very socially involved here," he said. "He would bring in produce and play his guitar for patients and staff on their birthdays. If we had a new patient, he would speak to the patient about the process of dialysis and what to expect."

Roland is looking forward to fishing and visiting with his six grown daughters.

"I feel great," he said. "I have a lot of energy. I want to start a new life. Fortunately, I have a very good family that is supportive."

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.

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