Jazmine Serrano recently celebrated her 22nd birthday.
And while the Port St. Lucie resident appreciated the presents and good wishes from friends, family and loved ones, they’d all agree that no gift could match the one Jazmine received a month earlier: a new kidney.
From her older sister, Naraly.
“I owe her my life,” Jazmine said.
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To which Naraly, 24, demurred: “She would’ve done the same thing for me.”
AS CLOSE AS TWINS
Growing up in Port St. Lucie, the Serrano sisters were best friends who shared everything.
So when the family learned two days before Christmas that Jazmine’s kidney disease — which had been diagnosed in 2013 — had progressed to the point that she’d need a kidney transplant immediately, there was no question in Naraly’s mind – before she’d even been tested for compatibility — whose kidney Jazmine would be receiving: “I wanted it to be mine.”
This was more than big sis looking out for little sis.
Naraly felt she had to make up for lost time.
“I was attending the University of Florida when Jazmine’s condition was diagnosed,” Naraly recalled. “And after I graduated, I accepted a teaching job in Atlanta. So, I haven’t been around for the day-to-day reality of how much the disease altered Jazmine’s life.”
Prior to 2013, Jazmine’s health had never been a concern.
But that changed almost without warning.
“Originally, I went to the doctor because I was really tired, losing weight, sleeping 12, 14, 16 hours a day,” Jazmine said. “They thought I was depressed, but I knew that wasn’t it. I knew something was physically wrong with me.”
Blood tests showed that Jazmine’s levels were off and a subsequent ultrasound revealed the shocking diagnosis: Jazmine had been born without a right kidney (a condition called renal agenesis) and her left kidney was functioning at just 30 percent of normal capacity.
“I was in stage 3 kidney disease at that point.”
Mature beyond her years, Jazmine took it in stride when doctors informed her that, while they’d be able to manage the disease with medication for awhile, eventually she’d need a kidney transplant.
“They figured it would be at least five to 10 years before my functioning kidney would begin failing,” Jazmine said.
So Jazmine went about living her life. She worked at a custom framing store, took her medication daily and had her blood tested monthly.
“For the most part, I was able to put the condition out of my mind,” Jazmine said. “I was feeling OK, so the idea of a transplant always seemed far in the future.”
Until it wasn’t.
In December, Jazmine’s kidney was functioning at less than 20 percent — meaning she’d need to start dialysis as soon as possible. At that rate of deterioration, her Cleveland Clinic Florida doctors believed she’d need a new kidney before the end of 2017 — and the sooner the better.
“That was when I got tested — without telling Jazmine — to see if I would be a match,” Naraly said.
In order to keep working, Jazmine opted for self-administered, at-home peritoneal dialysis — a complicated process in which she was hooked up to the dialysis machine for eight hours nightly while she slept.
The noisy machine disrupted Jazmine and her newlywed husband Aaron Pavao’s sleep (the high school sweethearts pushed up their wedding to January — with Naraly, of course, serving as maid of honor).
But Jazmine laughs at what was the biggest challenge of nightly dialysis: “Keeping our cat from playing with the wires.”
Meanwhile, Naraly learned she was a perfect blood and tissue match. Next came the screening process — which meant more testing and interviews. In May, she traveled to Cleveland Clinic Florida for two full days of examinations — both physical and psychological.
“I saw at least 15 doctors and they tested me for everything,” Naraly recalled. “They also wanted to make sure that I knew exactly what I was getting into and that I was doing it voluntarily. Which, of course, I was.”
Then came the waiting.
Before the donation/transplant procedures could be scheduled, a multidisciplinary committee of the Cleveland Clinic Florida Transplant Program must convene, review the case and unanimously agree to its immediate necessity.
Jazmine recalls the long wait: “Naraly and I were texting back and forth like, ‘Would these doctors just hurry up already?’”
THE BIG DAY
Finally, the back-to-back, two-hour procedures were scheduled for June 29.
Dr. Diego Reino performed both.
First, he removed Naraly’s left kidney via laparoscope.
“We usually take the donor’s left kidney; it’s easier to access because there’s no liver in the way,” Reino said.
Naraly had four small incisions and some post-op soreness but reported, “I was up and around within a couple of days.”
Conversely, Jazmine — with her now-weakened immune system — has had a much longer convalescence.
For the first few months, she’s been advised to avoid all crowded public spaces — elevators, airplanes, movie theaters, restaurants, etc. — and not to resume working until 2018 (“My employer has been great about it”).
Jazmine also has to follow a strict protocol of anti-rejection medication: 30 different pills that need to be taken at specific times in specific combinations (“At first, it was more confusing than learning how to give myself dialysis”).
And while the sisters have been advised not to become pregnant for at least a year, Reino said both are able to bear children in the future.
“They’ll just need to find obstetricians who specialize in kidney donor/recipient pregnancies,” he said.
Reino noted that, while a healthy live donor kidney like Jazmine received could function properly for 20 years or more, she’ll likely need another transplant (or two) in her lifetime.
But Jazmine isn’t worried about that right now.
Rather, she’s imagining doing all of the things that the disease has necessitated she put on hold.
Traveling to Atlanta (“I still haven’t seen Naraly’s place!”).
Riding roller coasters at Universal Studios.
Visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
“This journey hasn’t been easy,” she said. “But it has all been worth it.”
CLEVELAND CLINIC FLORIDA TRANSPLANT PROGRAM
Cleveland Clinic Florida began performing solid organ transplants (kidneys, livers, hearts) in 2013 and is now the fastest-growing transplant center in the state, having completed its 500th procedure on June 29 with the kidney transplant performed on Jazmine Serrano.
For more information about the Cleveland Clinic Florida Transplant Center, call 954-659-5133 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE GIFT OF LIFE
About 100,000 Americans are on the national kidney transplant waiting list and nearly two dozen die daily before receiving one. “Being an organ donor lets you give the gift of life,” Cleveland Clinic Florida transplant surgeon Dr. Diego Reino said.
To learn more about live kidney donation, visit kidney.org.
HELPING JAZMINE SERRANO
As a kidney transplant recipient, Jazmine Serrano, 22, faces a lifetime of exorbitant medical expenses. To help defray those costs, Serrano’s family has set up a donation page. To donate, visit HelpHopeLive.org.