Sheila Moreno was a healthy woman in her late 40s, leading an active life working in the family business 70 hours a week. The little spare time she had was spent raising two children, as well as a relative's young daughter.
In perfect health, but for high blood pressure, Sheila unexpectedly began experiencing chronic pain in her hip, which kept her up nights. A full physical revealed nothing unusual, but blood work showed her kidney numbers were off so an ultra-sound was recommended.
It was following this test in Nov. 2010 that her life turned upside-down. Sheila was informed that she not only had hundreds of cysts on both kidneys, but had a hereditary illness, Polycystic kidney disease, which progresses slowly and eventually leads to kidney failure. Sheila, while initially taken aback by the news, decided she needed to modify her lifestyle. She changed her diet to one of no processed foods, no salt, no dairy and no fried foods, dropped unhealthy habits and began exercising in earnest, walking everyday. She even biked across the San Francisco bridge, which took about eight hours, because she wasn't going to let the disease get the best of her.
For about a year, she continued at her same pace, waitressing at Robert's Frosty, which she owns with husband Bobby, and finding pleasure in life's little things like spending the day at the lake with family or pampering herself at A Village Hair & Nails in Coarsegold.
Salon owner, Tina Wynne had been her stylist for four years. Little-by-little, their relationship transformed from client and fellow business-owner to friendship as Sheila progressed in her illness and became more open about her struggles.
"She told me both her kidneys were failing, that her numbers were progressively dropping and after each blood test and doctor visit, she left with the fear of having to begin dialysis," Tina recalled.
It was over a gradual period that Sheila noticed she didn't have the energy to make it through the day as easily, that sometimes it was easier to sit and do nothing at all. She missed days at work and canceled appointments.
Tina learned that Sheila would ultimately face two options: to undergo a kidney transplant or begin dialysis. Either procedure would be required after the loss of 85 to 90 percent of kidney function, when a person has reached end-stage kidney failure.
While neither of these options is a cure for kidney failure, a transplant offers the best prospects, given that the transplanted kidney functions successfully. Without one of these interventions, Sheila would die.
An incredible offer
Without hesitation, Tina made an offer. "I told Sheila I would sign up and look into what it takes to become a living donor. Truly, the decision was that easy for me because I knew I would be saving her life."
Sheila was a little stunned by the unbelievable offer of such an incredible gift. A wife and mother of two herself, Tina went home that evening and told her husband, Eric, of her plans to go in for a screening to see if she was a good match.
It turned out his reaction was the same as hers had been earlier in the day. Eric jumped in with both feet without even knowing what he was getting into, and without forethought, his immediate words were, "How do I do that? Can I sign up for a screening, too?"
Once Sheila's health continued on a downward trend, with frequent and increasingly severe bouts of radiating back pain, combined with chronic fatigue, it was time for the Wynnes to step up for testing.
Early in the screening process, Tina was told she was not a match. Eric, on the other hand, was such a near-perfect match genetically that he could be Sheila's twin.
"I got down on my knees and prayed like crazy begging God to let me help," said Eric, a humble and unassuming man, who is clearly uncomfortable in the limelight.
"He was almost disappointed that I tested before he did, that I was first in line as a donor," Sheila interjected teasingly.
Both Eric and Tina, devout Christians, are convinced this is what God would want of them. Eric is sincere in his belief that this gift is his to give because Christ gave his life, saying, "God gets all the glory for my choice not me."
"It's kind of like I knew all along that I would be a match," Eric continued. "I have no fear, no apprehension of the surgery. It's a walk of faith for God. I'm going to save Sheila's life and that's why God connected us with that family."
Even though Eric, who works for Valley Yellow Pages in Fresno and is also a part-time martial arts instructor at Foothill Chi-tu do in Oakhurst, had never really met Sheila, he had taught her son martial arts for eight years.
"We knew each other, but really didn't know each other, if you know what I mean," Eric said. "I knew who she was for 10 years, but didn't really know her."
Eric, 40, simply looked at this experience as an "easy" way to save someone's life, prior to knowing anything about being a kidney donor and what it entailed. He quickly educated himself on the procedures prior to completing the screening process, which although a painstaking and lengthy one, has run surprisingly smooth.
There were blood tests, xrays, ultra-sounds, CT scans and consultations. A psychosocial evaluation with a clinical social worker was given, and the results of the entire testing process were reviewed by a multidisciplinary committee who made the final decision as to whether Eric was a good match or not. Because he has been completely evaluated and cleared, the chance that donating a kidney will affect his lifespan or lifestyle is extremely low.
Now, the only thing left is the actual surgery, which is scheduled for Feb. 14 at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.
Kidney transplants, known as donor nephrectomys, are considered major surgical procedures and take approximately two-to-three hours. Using a minimally-invasive technique, surgeons will remove Eric's left kidney, which will immediately be passed to Sheila.
The new kidney usually begins to function instantly. In most cases, the recipient's diseased or damaged kidneys aren't removed, but are by-passed. A person can lead an active, normal life with only one functioning kidney.
Sheila will remain in the hospital for four-to-seven days, with a four-to-eight week recovery, while Eric will be hospitalized for two-to-four days, with a four-to-six week recovery period.
"This new kidney can never become Polycystic diseased," Tina added. "It will give Sheila her life back, and because Eric is a living donor, her life expectancy is double that of a kidney transplant from someone deceased."
"It's very unusual for two living donors to step forward," Sheila remarked, "especially for someone who's not on dialysis. There are people who have been on the waiting list and on dialysis for seven years some have even died waiting for a kidney."
"But the symptoms are catching up with me now," Sheila honestly admitted. "I'm in stage 5 renal failure and my concentration is really bad. I went to the mall the other day, had to sit and calm myself down to remember where I had parked my car. It really scared me because that has never happened before."
Because of the declining condition of her kidneys, Sheila has an appointment in the next few days with her Fresno physician to learn whether she will need to undergo dialysis for a couple of weeks prior to her surgery. Dialysis does the work that the kidneys can no longer perform by filtering the blood to remove excess fluids and waste products.
"You know, I've already experienced one miracle," Sheila said glancing over at Eric as he slowly sipped a cup of coffee, "and my second miracle is that I haven't had to begin dialysis. Members from every single denomination are praying for me and those prayers are working."
Still, as the surgery date grows nearer, Sheila's fears increase. "I know all things are possible with God," she expressed, "but I do have a fear of the unknown." Just moments later, after quick reflection, she added, "I don't believe God would have brought us together for no reason."
If all goes as intended and hoped, Sheila, who has been on the verge of having to decide whether to begin dialysis in the past, may never face that difficult decision again.
"It's so hard for me to put into words what I'm feeling," Sheila said, shaking her head as she tried to put words to her emotions. "Because of a growing understanding of faith and fellowship, I realize what a true gift this is."
It was just a few months before making this choice that Eric decided to get a tattoo one to remind him of the Bible verse John 15:13 'no greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.'
"I'm not worried. I'm actually feeling calm going into this. It's just going to be a little bump in the road," Eric said. "Sheila and Bobby are covering the medical costs, and God has everything else covered."
"You know, I've had three knee replacements on one leg, but that's a piece of cake compared to what Eric and Sheila face," one anonymous woman making a cash donation commented in passing.
Taking a brief break from flipping burgers in the kitchen, Bobby sat quietly taking it all in. His facial expression showed just what a roller-coaster ride this has been.
"From the very beginning, this has been a very spiritual experience for me. It's been a real eye-opener," he reflected. "I'm more aware of life. It's renewed my faith in God and restored my faith in humanity. All I see on the news everyday is negative this and negative that but there are great people out there. And now, I find myself smack-dab in the middle of a miracle taking place in the small town of Coarsegold."
Both Eric and Sheila will be cared for by family and friends during their recovery, and Robert's Frosty will be closed for two weeks following Sheila's surgery.
On Saturday, Feb. 1 the Fiesta for the Future fundraiser to support kidney donor Eric Wynne, will be held at the Coarsegold Community Center. The festivities begin at 5 p.m. with a menu including chips and salsa, ground beef enchiladas, rice and beans. There will be a silent auction, including a donated trip to La Paz, Mexico, craft booths and music provided by disc jockey Albert Figueroa.
"Everyone has pulled together to help," Bobby Moreno said. "I've got chefs and cooks coming in to help me prepare the food. Alfonso's donated the chips and salsa. The Miner's Grill will close an hour early to come and help out. J & D Food Supply donated the meat. Even one of my ex-employees requested the day off work so he can come and help. And individuals stop in to drop off cash donations. It's just been amazing."
The revenues raised will help with expenses the Wynnes will incur in travel and room expenses.
Tickets can be purchased in advance for $10 per person at Robert's Frosty or A Village Hair & Nails. Details: (559) 683-5022, Sheila; or (559) 683-5522, Tina Wynne.