Tracie Marquez shares her experience of receiving a donor kidney, and life
after a transplant
Tracie Marquez is a world record-setting powerlifter. But, until six months
ago, this otherwise seemingly healthy and active Huntington Beach resident
was on dialysis 18 hours a week due to
polycystic kidney failure.
Tracie thought her life would change in July 2016, when after only two
weeks of being placed on the kidney transplant list and three years on
dialysis, she received a phone call from St. Joseph Hospital, Orange:
there was a kidney available for her that was an identical match and,
with kidney transplants, the better the match, the lower the risks of
complications and rejection after transplant surgery.
But there was one problem – Tracie had a tooth infection, which meant
she was disqualified to receive a transplant, and the kidney instead went
to the next person on the transplant waiting list. She was devastated.
“I told my mom, ‘What if that was my one chance?’ I thought
it might take years to get another opportunity like that,” says
Tracie, 53, herself a mother of two grown children.
Less than two months later, she received a second call and there was another
“perfect” kidney match for Tracie.
Ervin Ruzics, MD, medical director and kidney transplant surgeon at the
St. Joseph Hospital Kidney Transplant Center in Orange, California, and Tracie’s physician, says this was “a
tremendous stroke of good fortune.”
“People with her blood type are typically on the transplant wait
list for about 10 years,” he said. “The fact that she received
HLA match, well, that’s the holy grail of kidney transplants. The chances
of that are like pulling a winning lottery ticket.”
After receiving the second call, Tracie immediately went to St. Joseph
Hospital, Orange. Her mother rushed home from a trip to New York to be
by her side. The transplant team did further testing on Tracie and the
new kidney to determine the viability. On Sept. 22, 2016, she underwent
a successful three-and-a-half-hour kidney transplant surgery.
“Tracie had a very straightforward and uncomplicated transplant,”
says Dr. Ruzics. “Transplants are extremely dangerous—there
can be a lot of complications and those who are frail may not survive;
but Tracie was very fit and at the top of the class in terms of her health.”
KIDNEY FAILURE: THE SIGNS & SYMPTOMS
Tracie was first diagnosed with kidney disease in 2004 after suffering
from abdominal pain and an ultrasound revealed several cysts on her kidneys.
At that time, doctors told her there wasn’t much she could do other
than to monitor the cysts.
But the signs of trouble were there. Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is
a hereditary condition that causes cysts in the kidneys. These cysts are
filled with fluid, and if too many grow or they get too big, the kidneys
become damaged, reducing function and eventually leading to kidney failure.
PKD is the fourth leading cause of kidney failure, with about 600,000
people diagnosed in the United States.
Tracie started having serious problems a few years after she began competing
as a powerlifter and broke the women’s world record in the bench-pressing
category for her weight and age class.
Her performance in competitions began to decrease. She was always cold,
and exhausted. Her arms tired from holding the blow dryer to her hair.
Her appetite diminished, and she was no longer menstruating. She attributed
it to “getting older” and continued to press on through her
powerlifting. It wasn’t until 2013 when she went to Hawaii to compete
in a state championship that she realized there was something more serious
happening. She felt sick and nauseous, and she immediately called her
doctor when she returned home. After blood tests, a trip to the emergency
room followed by five days in the hospital and a blood transfusion, doctors
determined that Tracie’s kidney was hardly functioning anymore and
she went on dialysis, three days a week, six hours a day.
“Dialysis drove me nuts. I was tired all the time and felt horrible,
and I was still working full time,” she recalls. “Three days
out of my week were just gone – I’d leave straight from work,
go to dialysis at night, get home, go to sleep for a few hours and then
get back up to go to work again. Plus, I was at the gym two or three days
a week lifting weights.”
Tracie says some of her doctors told her she shouldn’t be lifting
anything over 25 pounds, and while she did cut back on the amount of weights,
she refused to give it up entirely. In fact, she even competed in an Iron
Warrior competition in May 2014. “It’s the weightlifting that
kept me going as long as I did—I was physically and mentally stronger
because of it, and I kept pushing myself because I knew I needed that
focus in my life,” she says. “It’s what I like, it’s
what I do, and it’s who I am.”
LIFE AFTER HER KIDNEY TRANSPLANT
Tracie spent only four days in the hospital after her transplant. She
then took time off work as she recovered from surgery and began taking
a tailored, around-the-clock immunosuppressive drug therapy of nearly
10 different medications to prevent the body’s immune system from
rejecting the new organ. She had her blood drawn every day so that Dr.
Ruzics could carefully monitor her kidney function and drug levels to
detect any early signs of potential rejection. There were a lot of other
precautions she had to take, such as not going out in public areas with large crowds
or being around anyone with a cold or other contagious illness.
While the medications, blood draws and doctor visits have decreased and
will continue to do so over time – she’s now on four medications,
sees the doctor once a month and gets her blood drawn every two weeks
– they will never go away entirely, says Dr. Ruzics.
“I just feel like me again, and then my friends at the gym remind
me by saying ‘It’s amazing what you went through. You almost
died twice, and now you’re back at the gym training.’ But
life feels pretty normal now,” she says. “It hasn’t
completely sunk in yet, but I don’t go to dialysis anymore and the
other night I realized I had time to do normal things like laundry and
Tracie wants to help others who suffer from kidney disease. She participates
in walks for the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) to raise awareness and
funds for research. On May 27, she is working with Metroflex Gym in Long
Beach to hold a Bench Press Drive where 20 percent of the entry fees will
go to NKF.
TRANSPLANT PROGRAM RANKED AMONG THE BEST
The Kidney Transplant Program at St. Joseph Hospital, Orange has a history
of tackling surgical and medical challenges, often accepting patients
turned down by other centers. The transplant success and patient survival
rates are among the highest in the nation. The program has transplanted
more than 1,000 kidneys and ranks as one of the best organ transplant
programs in the United States for one-year transplant success rates.
“When I started in this field 30 years ago, one-year transplant success
rates were 50 percent – a coin flip, literally. Today, at St. Joseph
Hospital, Orange, we have had a 100 percent one-year transplant success
rate for the last five years,” says Dr. Ruzics.
The center’s expert team of highly skilled surgeons and staff attribute
their outcomes in part to the closely monitored post-transplant care and
For all their success, however, programs like St. Joseph Hospital’s
depend on kidney donors. More than 119,000 people in the United States
are awaiting a life-saving organ transplant, and as the wait list continues
to grow, Dr. Ruzics encourages the community to
become registered organ donors. Nearly 40 percent of kidney donations nationally are coming from living,
rather than deceased donors. For information about becoming a living donor, visit
www.transplantliving.org/livingdonation or call the St. Joseph Hospital Kidney Transplant Center living donor
coordinator at (714) 771-8033.
Tracie often thinks about the 60-year-old Ohio woman whose kidney she
received, and her family. She says the holidays brought mixed emotions
as she celebrated her new lease on life but realized there was another
family across the country mourning the loss of their loved one.
“I’m here because she’s gone. I’m outside, and
I look up at the sunshine and realize I might not be able to do that if
it wasn’t for her. It makes me feel bad for her family—to
lose someone so sudden and unexpected,” she says. “I’m
very grateful though.”