Transplant Patient Lives Life Motto by Blood Type: B Positive
Sally Hernandez has been on a journey.
A journey to find family, to adopt llamas, to find a pancreas, to teach her granddaughter how to play flute, to hand stitch giant quilts and recently—to find a kidney after three years of dialysis.
The 66-year-old from Napa Valley, California, has always told herself that no matter what happens in life, there are miracles within miracles happening. She earned her strength throughout the years after being fostered and adopted by numerous families since the age of four, and a crippling Type 1 diabetes diagnosis that sent her on a path toward needing two transplants.
By age 30, doctors told Sally that diabetes was putting her life was at risk. Even though she had an insulin pump and sensor, she struggled with severe migraines, dizziness, fatigue and daily blood sugar levels in the high 600s. Sally was later told she would need a pancreas to stay alive, so she started doing her research. She found out that most pancreas transplants also pair with a kidney transplant. Sally felt strongly that she didn’t want to take anyone’s kidneys because she had perfectly healthy kidneys, so she found the nearest transplant center that would offer a pancreas-only transplant 900 miles away in Tucson, Arizona. She knew another miracle was on her way.
“My life’s motto has always been determined by my blood type—B Positive,” Sally said.
When the Tulare County community near Visalia where she was working at the time got wind of her transplant need, they rallied, pulling together to help her raise funds for an Angel Flight, a transportation service that would allow her to receive her transplant within a four-hour window.
On June 17, 2010, Sally was powering through her shift at Starbucks when she received her miracle. A call came through that there was a pancreas waiting for her in Tucson. She called her Angel Flight contact and found out he was on another transplant call. In a panic, she and her husband called another company, wrote a check for $11,000 and they were off. Little did she know at the time, the community had raised that exact amount, covering the full flight cost.
Three hours later she was prepped for surgery and met her savior “Pretty Patty,” a name she came up with for her new pancreas after her doctor told her it was one of the prettiest pancreases he’d seen.
But within three months of having a new pancreas, Sally grew even more ill. She was traveling back and forth between her home in California to her transplant doctor in Arizona, trying to figure out how to regain health. She learned that the anti-rejection medications she was taking to stop her immune system from attacking her transplant were causing her kidneys to fail.
“I took a five-minute pity break and cried my eyes out,” Sally said. “Then, I said, ‘I’m going to get a kidney.’”
Sally headed back to California and started a new journey. She went down a long path of finding the right donor for a kidney transplant. Her husband (and rock) of nearly 50 years immediately raised his hand, but they later learned he wasn’t compatible. In the next eight years, Sally patiently waited while her kidneys struggled to keep up. In that time, she began dialysis with DaVita Kidney Care’s Napa Valley Dialysis Center, where she grew a new family.
“My first experience in the center was hard because I felt the weight of torture in this process of surviving,” Sally said. “But then I learned the importance of what I had to do, and I could no longer hold a grudge. Everyone at the center was there for me and still is today.”
Sally, who struggled to accept dialysis at first, later became an advocate. In December 2018, she received a call from the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. Another miracle—a kidney, ready for her. She received her transplant, naming her new inhabitant, and roommate to Pretty Patty, “Kit.” It had to have a strong name, she said.
Four months later and she now has more energy than she’s had in 20 years or more. In fact, now she’s leading a support group at her DaVita dialysis center for patients and caregivers. She said there were so many highs and lows during treatment, and it’s about uplifting people and answering the millions of questions out there.
Tyler Anderson, a DaVita facility administrator at Napa Valley Dialysis Center, said he recognized Sally’ contagious energy immediately.
“Sally brings an excitement for life into our community,” Anderson said. “I recently had a patient who struggled to come to treatments on a consistent basis tell me that when Sally is in the clinic the time goes by faster, and asked me if she could be here more often.”
He said that when patients see their peers go through the process of receiving a transplant, it inspires them to be diligent and come to treatments, and Sally said that was her goal all along—to inspire hope and encourage her new family.
“I’m actually blessed to have had the experience,” Sally said. “Dialysis gave me three years with my family that I was not destined to have. I was not destined to be able to watch my granddaughter play flute, perform in her high school choir, to make a king size quilt that took four years to complete. Before dialysis I wasn’t able to spend quality time with my family and that’s what it gave me.”
On a monthly basis, she now teams up with leaders and the care team at the center to help empower patients with knowledge on everything from being compliant with treatment and having the right attitude, to learning how to go through the transplant process and finding donors. Through this collaboration she aims to allow for everyone to focus on each other, creating less anxiety for everyone’s own individual health.
“I realized I may not receive a kidney and be on dialysis the rest of my life. I looked around at my friends at DaVita who were not eligible for transplant and at my friends, my lifesavers and the lifesaving equipment around me and was grateful. I thought that if this is the worst that can happen, I can live with it.”
Sally said when it comes to seeking a transplant, discouragement is only allowed a few minutes a year. There are so many things you can do.
“Talk to your nephrologist,” Sally said. “There are many excellent transplant centers. Check each one out and ask questions. I talked to my social worker at DaVita about the centers they work with and it was helpful. Tell people your need for a kidney transplant and believe you’ll get one.”
Before her transplant, she said her miracle was just making it through another day, and her DaVita dialysis center family was instrumental in achieving that goal. Today, she said her miracle is feeling grateful to her donor and families, and for the amazing journey she’s been on.
April is National Donate Life Month. To learn more about becoming a living donor or registered organ donor, visit DonateLife.net.