When 52-year old Nancy Mateo was diagnosed with acute glomerulonephritis—an inflammation of the kidneys—she was devastated.
“Para akong binagsakan ng langit at lupa (It was like the weight of the earth fell upon me),” she says.
It was 1994. Nancy worked as a nurse in a company. After her shift, she would usually head home to take care of her father who couldn’t walk properly, and her mother who had a high blood condition. Nancy’s five siblings were abroad while she was in Bacoor, Cavite, watching over their parents at home.
She didn’t have an inkling of the impending kidney disease, until one day when one of her toes started to swell. “Ang akala ko noon, ano lang (I thought it was just), gouty arthritis,” she says. Since she was a nurse, Nancy applied self-medication and didn’t think of the swollen toe any further.
The swelling soon spread to the lower part of her foot. She also started feeling weak and became easily tired. Her skin started to darken. “Eh pagkaputi-puti ko, para akong labanos (But I was white as a radish [at that time]),” she says.
Her initial laboratory tests showed abnormal results. Her creatinine level was unusually high, along with her cholesterol level.
A trip to the University of Sto. Tomas (UST) Hospital then revealed that Nancy’s two kidneys were shrinking. She was given medication, until Nancy’s nephrologist, Dra. Libertad Rosales, suggested that she undergo dialysis, before it was too late.
“Gusto ng doktora, magkaroon ako ng dialysis... Ako, puro teka muna ng teka. Sabi ko kaya ko pa naman (The doctor wanted me to have dialysis...but I kept telling her to wait. I said that I can still take it),” she says.
The truth was Nancy was waiting for a family member to offer a kidney for a transplant, which was a better alternative than regular kidney dialysis.
Four of Nancy’s five siblings, however, were ineligible for a transplant. The firstborn had just undergone an operation. The third one had diabetes, and another had a stone in the gallbladder. The fifth one had a high blood condition. Nancy’s second sibling, thus, was her only hope.
That hope was cruelly dashed when her sister’s blood turned out to be Type O. Nancy’s nephrologist wanted the donor’s blood to be Type A-positive for a match.
None of Nancy’s cousins, or her parent’s nephews and nieces, offered their kidneys for donation, or even “pretended to be interested in donation,” says Nancy.
“Wala na akong tsansa (My chances are lost),” she thought at that time. “So pinasa-Diyos ko na lang. Bahala na (I gave it up to God. What will be, will be).”
Nancy didn’t know that from the time she was first diagnosed, her friend Isabel Versola—a colleague at work—had decided to offer her own kidney if ever Nancy runs out of options.
Isabel had been living in a rented house owned by Nancy’s mother, and had been accompanying Nancy to the hospital for check-ups. When Nancy and her sister received the news that their blood types were incompatible, Isabel declared her desire to give Nancy her kidney.
Isabel’s offer made Nancy and her sister cry right there at the doctor’s clinic in the UST Hospital.
“Dahil isipin mo, ibang tao, hindi mo kaano-ano...bibigay sa ‘yo isang kidney mo, na hindi ako nahirapan maghanap kung saan ako kukuha ng ipangdudugtong ko sa buhay ko (Think about it, a person you’re not related to...will give you a kidney, [because of that] I didn’t have difficulty searching for a means to bridge my life),” she says.
“Napakalaking bagay noon. Hanggang ngayon...hindi ko iyon makakalimutan. Utang ko sa kanya ang buhay ko (It was a very large sacrifice [for her]. I will not forget what she did. I owe her my life).”
The transplant was done December 16, 1995, around a year after Nancy discovered the swelling on her toe. Before the operation, Nancy gave Isabel one more chance to back out of the transplant, but Isabel firmly stood by her decision. Isabel was 49 years old, while Nancy was 39.
After the transplant operation, Nancy let Isabel live in her home. Isabel was an orphan, and did not have relatives in Metro Manila. She did not ask for anything—money, favors, the like—in exchange for the donation.
Five years after her transplant, Nancy was diagnosed with dengue, although this did not have any connection with her kidney transplant. Even then, Isabel was ready to donate her blood this time, if ever Nancy needed it.
“Siya pa rin ang magbibigay (She was the one who will donate, still),” says Nancy.
It would be 11 years and 5 months later that her kidney would start showing signs of chronic rejection. Her nephrologist recommended that she change one of her medications, since Nancy was becoming toxic to one of her old medications.
Her confinement due to dengue and the chronic rejection were the only serious complications Nancy faced after her transplant 14 years ago.
Today, Nancy takes 16 medications a day for maintenance of her kidneys. She must also take laboratory tests every month in the National Kidney Transplant Institute in Quezon City, to check if her levels are normal.
These don’t come cheap. For her medication alone, Nancy estimates that she spends roughly P80,000 to P90,000 a month. Every laboratory test costs around P8,000.
Nancy says money sent by siblings abroad and the pay she gets from continuing her mother’s renting business is barely enough to cover her expenses for medication. There are times even when she can’t take her laboratory tests when she doesn’t have enough money.
“Kahit may balon ka ng pera...natutuyuan din...kapag ang sakit na dumapo sa iyo ay kidney. Kasi habambuhay kang iinom ng gamot eh. Habang panahon ka magche-check up (Even though you have a well of money...it will dry up...when the illness you catch is a kidney [problem]. You will take medicine forever. You will always have medical check-ups),” says Nancy.
Despite this, Nancy is grateful that she received a transplant, instead of repeatedly undergoing dialysis. “Napakahirap ng dina-dialysis. Para ka nang buhay na patay (It’s difficult to undergo dialysis. It’s like you’re dead, but alive),” she says.
Isabel saved Nancy from that fate. Without asking for anything in return, she freely gave her kidney in a gesture of altruism, one that is rare to find these days.
This article was made possible with the generous support of the American people through the United States Department of State Office to Monitor and Combat trafficking in Persons and The Asia Foundation. The contents are the responsibility of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Department of State of the United States or The Asia Foundation.