Women recount story of kidney donation more than seven years later

Onelia Lopez and Kate Culligan may not look alike but they do have one thing in common: a kidney.

Lopez, as a good Samaritan, donated her left kidney to Culligan in 2010.

Back in 1985, when Lopez was 17 in Guatemala, she hurt her leg and went to the emergency room. There, the now-Fallbrook resident, met a man in the waiting room whose body was severely swollen.

She was taken by him, and asked him what had happened. He informed her he had experienced renal failure, a condition in which body fluids rise to dangerous levels when kidneys are no longer able to use their filtering ability. Lopez asked the man what the solution would be to his health issues.

"What could really save me would be a kidney transplant," the man told her.

Those words stuck with her, and she vowed that one day she would become a donor.

Lopez shared her story of donating to Culligan, of Cardiff, at a meeting of the San Dieguito Women's Club on Feb. 13.

At first, Lopez, a mother of three, said she put off her donation due to having to care for her young children and disapproval from her ex-husband. By May 2010, she was divorced, had the blessing of her children, her new boyfriend's approval and an appointment with UC San Diego for a consultation.

The hospital informed her she was the first good Samaritan donor in a decade.

On Dec. 17 of that year, Lopez and her recipient — who she later found out was Culligan — went into surgery.

Before the transplant was even complete, with only part of Lopez's left kidney sewn into Culligan's body, Culligan was able to urinate, something she had been struggling with.

"The doctor said she had never seen anything like that," Lopez said. "That, to me, is just so powerful."

In fact, Lopez and Culligan were an all-around 99 percent organ match.

Weeks following the surgery, Lopez agreed to meet Culligan to give them each peace of mind. From there, the two have become friends.

"Kate and I were having lunch together last year, and I looked at her," Lopez recalled. "I kept thinking, 'How is this possible? I was born in Guatemala. Her family is from Ireland.' I looked at her, and we were so physically different, but we're 99 percent compatible. Our blood, our tissues... it's so amazing how the technology just improved her quality of life."

Culligan said she was able to recover at a rehab center near the hospital, while Lopez received help from family and friends.

Lopez, who sustained four scars below her breasts and near her abdomen as a result of the surgery, encourages anyone interested in donating to do it. She also regularly donates her hair to Locks of Love, which provides wigs for cancer patients.

She said while the organ donation surgery was painful at the time, she "can't even remember the pain" now. Within four months of her operation, she said she was able to tackle aggressive hikes and continue with her regular routine.

Culligan said she's thankful for Lopez's sacrifice and said she has returned to living a normal life.

"I wouldn't be here without her today," Culligan said.

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