By Gary Nelson

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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – When most couples marry, vowing to be with each other “in sickness and health” it is a time-honored, heartfelt pledge.

For Abel and Gabriela Valdes it was a life-changing, life-saving reality.

The two were childhood sweethearts.

“I met him when I was seventeen years old. He was the only boyfriend I ever had. He was my prom date,” Gabriela Valdes said at a Thursday news conference at Jackson/UHealth.

Things were going along great for the couple until Abel was diagnosed with chronic renal failure, known as chronic kidney disease (CKD) a condition characterized by a gradual loss of kidney function over time and retention of fluid. At the same time, Gabriela was pregnant with their third son.

In 2016, Abel began dialysis four days a week and placed on the national kidney transplant waiting list.

But his health continued to deteriorate. In October 2017, he had open heart surgery due to the strain that dialysis had on his body.

The family was referred to physicians at Miami Transplant Institute (MTI), a unique affiliation between Jackson Health System and UHealth – the University of Miami Health System at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. There they learned about the Living Donor Kidney Program.

“It is the heart and soul of the kidney program because it generates the best results,” said UHealth’s Dr. Giselle Guerra who spearheaded the program. “The patients do not have to linger on a waiting list, and it shortens the amount of time a patient needs to be on dialysis because they can be transplanted at any point with a living donor.”

Gabriela was shocked to learn she may be a potential match even though she’s not a blood relative. A doctor with the Living Donor Program suggested she be tested, telling her husband “needs a kidney. Now.”

“I said, ‘I’m his wife, I’m not going to be a match, that’s not likely,’ and he said, ‘you never know’”.

And when the results came back: Bingo.

“When we got the phone call that I was a perfect match, to be honest, it was like, yay!” Gabriela recalled at the news conference.

Within weeks, on March 20, husband and wife went into surgery with Jackson/Uhealth physicians. They would be under the knife a combined eight hours. Scarcely two weeks later, both are recovering well.

“I’m thankful, and very grateful to her, because I know it was very painful for her to go through it,” her husband said Thursday.

Gabriela said she didn’t hesitate.

“There was nothing else to it. He’s my husband. He has to live. He’s the father of our three beautiful children,” Gabriela said.

Abel said, at first, he didn’t want his wife to donate her kidney. There was too much to lose, he said.

“With the three kids, I didn’t want her to be risking anything, but she was determined,” he said.

Before the transplant, Abel Valdes had no energy, was depressed, had lost total kidney function and was at death’s door.

Now the family is returning to normal.

What’s next?

“Travel with the kids and family. Spend time with them,” Abel Valdes said. The news conference ended with husband and wife kissing, a group hug with their children, and hugs all around with members of the medical teams that cared for Abel Valdes over the years.

A mechanic for 16 years, Valdes is now on disability due to vision loss, a complication of his illnesses. Gabriela is a nurse.

Their news conference came in April, “National Donate Life Month.” Those willing to be tested could prove to be a match for a loved one or even a total stranger.

Jackson Health System contributed to this report.

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