The Gift of Life

When Gene-o Parenica developed life-threatening kidney problems, he relied heavily on his faith to pull him through. But ultimately, his daughter and UT Southwestern surgeons proved to be his saving grace.

Gene-o Parenica and daughter
Gene-o Parenica and daughter

After 25 years as a youth minister wrangling dozens of kids for his church, Gene-o Parenica might expect to be tired. But his weariness was noticeably persistent and suspiciously uncharacteristic for such a particularly energetic man.

“I would come home and sit on the couch, and just drop off the face of the Earth,” the 51-year-old recalls. “I’d just fall asleep. In the past, I’d always been someone who was very energetic.”

He eventually went to the doctor, who tweaked his blood pressure medication while they awaited results from a bevy of blood and other tests. An ominous call came within a few days while he was out playing Frisbee golf with his kids. Test results were in, and Gene-o needed to come in the next morning to discuss them.

“Kidney failure and transplant were not things we were even considering,” he recalls. But that was the problem. His kidneys were functioning at a startlingly low 13 percent capacity.

“Basically, I started a new journey,” he says. “We started doing research, and we learned the team at UT Southwestern was excellent.”

First Up: A Change of Diet

In the past year, approximately 650 people were referred to UT Southwestern’s surgical transplant program under the direction of Juan Arenas, M.D., Chief of Surgical Transplantation.

First up for Gene-o was a change in diet to see if his limited kidney function could be preserved. He removed salt from his diet almost entirely, limited ice cream, and gave up chips and salsa along with most Mexican food, one of his favorites.

Even so, his kidney function continued to fluctuate from as low as 7 percent to just 15 percent. It was clear more would be needed, and he dreaded the next step—dialysis. Gene-o says having to undergo blood-cleansing dialysis treatments three times a week was about as bad as he could envision.

But prayer brought him the strength to carry on, he says, while testing family members for a living donor match began.

Living Donors Critical to Success

“The shortage of organs to transplant remains the major stumbling block for the more than 100,000 people on waiting lists, so kidney donations from living donors are a critical component to expand the pool of potential donors and shorten life-threatening delays,” says Dr. Arenas.

Transplanted organs from living donors tend to lead to better results compared with organs from deceased donors, according to data from the United Network for Organ Sharing, which operates the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.

After five years, living donor organ recipients have an 80 percent survival rate, compared with 67 percent for those who receive organs from deceased donors. (Living donor kidneys do better in part because the donor can be tested thoroughly prior to transplantation, and the kidney is between bodies for less time.)

Living donations account for about one-fifth of donated organs. Among living donations, roughly three-fourths are from a recipient’s relative.

Everyone in Gene-o’s family—from his sister to his wife to his mother-in-law— eagerly stepped forward, but each proved to be a mismatch. Behind the scenes, unbeknownst to him, his children were staging a backup plan.

Worries for a daughter’s health

“We all kind of discussed it, and said, ‘Dad is not doing well, and something’s got to change,’” recalls his daughter Theresa, who was 19 at the time. “Originally he said, ‘I don’t want any of you kids to donate.’ But we kids decided that wasn’t good enough.”

His son was too young, but Theresa was confirmed as a good match, so the duty—and privilege—fell to her.

Though she was ready to step up, Gene-o hesitated, worried about his daughter’s future health and the potential for her own future kidney problems.

“That’s too much for you to do for me,” he told her. “Let’s just trust that God will provide.”

But she wasn’t giving up.

“Theresa said, ‘Dad, won’t the same God that provides for you provide for me? Just as God has taken care of you, God will take care of me,’” Gene-o recalls. “Don’t you hate it when your own kids use your words against you?”

Gene-o and his daughter rolled into separate operating rooms in June 2008, with Theresa’s kidney removal performed by Dev Desai, M.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Surgical Transplantation at UT Southwestern, followed immediately by Gene-o’s transplant, performed by Meelie Debroy, M.D., Assistant Professor of Surgical Transplantation.

“The Greatest Day Ever”

“With both being in the hospital, it was fairly nerve-wracking for all of us,” recalls wife and mother Valerie Parenica. “They were in surgery at the same time, so I was running back and forth to his room, then her room. It was the most exhausting day.

“When Theresa came out, her first question was, ‘How is Dad?’

“I had to tell her at the time that we didn’t know. She said, ‘All of this and he might not make it?’ But once we got through that first night, we had people from our church come up and pray at his bedside.”

The next day when he awoke, nurses wheeled Theresa in to see her dad.

“I kept that photo on my cell phone for the longest time,” Valerie recalls. “It was like the greatest day ever, one of the best days of my life.”

Theresa was back on her feet and at work within two weeks and is now back in college earning her elementary education degree.

“People ask how it was,” she says. “I always answer, ‘If you know someone you can donate to, do it, because it was easy.’”

Gene-o is likewise back on his feet with his ministry.

“The kidney has been a blessing. It's like someone turned a light on. I felt so much energy was returning to my body,” he says. “I’m probably never going to be the Energizer Bunny again, but now I’m able to take care of things. It was a sweet blessing that my daughter Theresa gave me.

“God has blessed me with a new lease on life through my daughter.”

Recognizing the Problem Signs of Kidney Disease

According to Miguel Vazquez, MD, Professor of Internal Medicine and Director of Transplant Nephrology at UT Southwestern, "Most frequently, there are no signs or symptoms of renal disease until the disease is advanced. The best approach is to have regular checkups."

Several common signs of advanced stages to watch for:

  • Changes in urination patterns, such as difficulty urinating or the need to urinate at night
  • Swelling in ankles, legs, hands, or face
  • Feelings of fatigue, lack of energy, shortness of breath, or a lack of concentration
  • Feeling cold or pain in the leg(s) and/or lower back
  • Nausea, vomiting, and/or loss of appetite