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Girlfriend gives beau second chance for Valentine's Day (w/video)

By Elena Watts
March 13, 2014 at 12:03 a.m.
Updated March 15, 2014 at 10:16 p.m.

Manuel Vargas and Norma Perez laugh when asked about whether he had noticed any change in his personality after receiving a kidney transplant from Perez, who happened to be a donor match.

Benefit

• WHAT: $8 brisket and sausage plates with all the trimmings, bake sale and silent auction to help defray medical expenses; delivery available for six or more plates within Victoria city limits

• WHEN: 11 a.m. June 1

• WHERE: Atilanos Night Club, 1705 Port Lavaca Drive, Victoria

• For more information, contact Norma Perez at 361-433-6375 or Rubena Peuttus at 361-405-9132

Kidneys, not hearts, symbolize the romantic love celebrated on Valentine's Day for Norma Perez and Manuel Vargas, both 43.

At 7:30 a.m. Feb. 14, Dr. William Harmon, transplant surgeon with the Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital in San Antonio, began the process of removing Perez's left kidney.

Three hours later, Dr. Adam Bingaman, director of the live donor kidney transplant program, transplanted Perez's organ into Vargas, her boyfriend of almost three years.

This month, Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital was named the national leader in live donor kidney transplantation by the United Network for Organ Sharing for the fifth consecutive year, said Palmira Arellano, public relations representative for Methodist Healthcare.

There are 98,000 people on the kidney waiting list in the United States and only 11,000 kidneys to go around each year, Bingaman said. About 4,500 people on the list die each year before they get transplants.

The average wait in South Texas is five to eight years, he said.

People often find dialysis devastating as they wait on the list. The time-consuming treatments make working and living a normal life difficult, Bingaman said.

"The average person lives a better quality life with a transplant than on dialysis," he said. "The average transplant patient also lives 10 years longer than the person on dialysis."

Without antibodies created by pregnancy, blood transfusion or previous transplant, the chance that a random stranger would be a good donor match for someone in need of a kidney is two out of three.

"It is a truly selfless act to give a piece of yourself so someone else can live," Bingaman said. "The decision should be based on information and education."

Vargas met Perez at the hotel in Victoria where she works as a desk clerk.

"She smiled, and I thought, 'I got to talk to that girl,'" Vargas said. "I said, 'Can I have your number? I want to take you under my wing.'"

When Vargas reached out to Perez at the hotel that day, he did not expect that she could reach back with the gift of renewed life.

On their first date, the couple realized over dinner that they shared many of the same ideas about life.

"I liked his kindness," Perez said. "He was giving and soft-hearted."

After dating about six months, Perez moved with her 14-year-old son into Vargas' home.

Vargas, originally from San Juan, has lived in Victoria for six years.

He has managed diabetes for 18 years, and the last eight of those years have been more difficult because he developed high blood pressure.

The dialysis treatments, which were four hours per day, three days per week, started about a year before Vargas met Perez.

"I was depressed the first year of dialysis - it was the hardest time," Vargas said. "I learned to live with it, accept and make the best of it."

Vargas chose not to add his name to the kidney transplant waiting list, a service offered him by DaVita Dialysis Center in Victoria.

"I just decided to ride it out and see how long I lasted," he said.

The center also inquired whether Vargas had a healthy family member who would be willing to donate a kidney to him, which he did not.

"He was so weak on his dialysis days and so energetic on his days off," Perez said. "I wanted him to feel good every day."

Doctors determined that Perez was a match for Vargas, and she began the rigorous physical and mental testing required of donors. She was deemed a healthy, eligible donor candidate.

"I left it in God's hands," Perez said. "If he was meant to have my kidney, then it would work out."

The transplant took place six months after Perez learned she was a match.

The day before surgery, the doctor told Perez that she was giving Vargas an amazing Valentine's Day gift.

"What is he giving you?" Harmon asked.

"A longer life to share with me," Perez responded.

"That's a great answer," Harmon said.

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