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CNM teacher gives gift of life to student with kidney donation

Jennifer Adams is the kind of teacher who gives a little extra support to help her students succeed.

Jennifer Adams, right, a teacher at Central New Mexico Community College, is donating a kidney to her student, Melinda Urvanejo Hernandez, left. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Jennifer Adams, right, a teacher at Central New Mexico Community College, is donating a kidney to her student, Melinda Urvanejo Hernandez, left. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Today, she’ll step up her generosity and compassion to a whole other level – she’s donating one of her kidneys so her student, Melinda Urvanejo Hernandez, has a chance at a longer and fuller life.

“It was her essay,” Adams, 31, says of an assignment she gave to her English class at Central New Mexico Community College this past fall. “I kept having images of her daughter growing up without her. I have a daughter. I prayed a lot. It’s something I wanted to do. I wanted to help her, if I could. It’s because of my faith. Loving everybody and helping people is just part of that.”

Urvanejo Hernandez, 41, says Adams was an answer to her prayers: “She’s my guardian angel. I’m so grateful to her for giving me a second chance at life.”

As for her life-changing essay, Urvanejo Hernandez says she’s never liked writing much. Near the end of the semester, Adams had assigned the class to write about an event that changed their life.

“I thought, oh gosh, where do I even start?” says Urvanejo Hernandez. “Then I thought, OK, I’ll tell them about my life.”

Her life is about dialysis three times a week, treatments that leave her exhausted and with little energy for her daughter, Giavonna Urvanejo, 7. It’s knowing her life could be short. She’s been told most people in her stage of kidney disease die in five to seven years.

In her essay, she writes about how, beginning in the fall of 2009, she felt tired and her body ached – but then she worked hard at a job she enjoyed, as a messenger for an armored trucking service, and she was raising her daughter as a single mom.

The pain kept her awake, stealing sleep except for a few hours every night: “I would swell up from head to toe. It was so painful, I would cry.” Finally, in spring 2010, when she couldn’t take it anymore, she went to the emergency room.

The medical staff told her they were surprised she was still alive. Both kidneys had shut down and her body was filled with toxins: “I had to stay there for one month until it was safe to come home.”

It gave her time to think. She knew her life was going to get harder, but didn’t realize how much time and energy dialysis would require.

It took two years, she writes, “to start a new beginning in my life for my daughter and me to better myself and get stronger. So I decided to go back to school. I push myself every day, so I believe I can be just as normal as everybody else. In this world there is a higher power, who is with me, from the beginning who kept me from dying. I am here to finish what I was sent to do on this Earth and be here to see my daughter grow up.”

Urvanejo Hernandez was diagnosed with diabetes in her early 20s. She needs insulin injections to control her blood sugar. She has high blood pressure. Both are risk factors for kidney disease, which also runs in her family, she says.

According to Sean Roach, spokesman at the National Kidney Foundation, Hispanics are 1½ times more likely than the rest of the population to experience kidney failure. Every year 90,000 people die from kidney disease. Most people don’t recognize it, until it threatens their lives, because it has few symptoms. One in nine American adults has kidney disease, but of the 100,000 people who need a kidney transplant, fewer than 17,000 will receive one.

Urvanejo Hernandez was put on a kidney donor list in 2011.

She had no idea Adams was considering giving her a kidney, until Adams called her out from class one day near the end of the semester: “I thought I had done something wrong. At first, I didn’t hear her. I was in shock or something and then I was really excited.”

Her doctors tell her the kidney transplant will take three or four hours. She will have an incision and be in the hospital about a week, if all goes well. It will take another month or two to recover from surgery and she will be on medicines to keep her body from rejecting the kidney: “If we’re lucky, it starts working right away.”

Adams says she went to the University of New Mexico Hospital for testing beginning in December: “They had to make sure our cells were a match, that they wouldn’t attack each other.” She went through physical and psychological tests to make sure her body was healthy and her mind was in the right place for the transplant.

Toward the end of May she learned she was a match.

That’s when the reality hit her.

She will have laparoscopy, meaning the transplant team will make two small incisions and use a scope and a larger incision to get one of her kidneys out of her body. She has all the risks associated with major surgery. It will take her four to six weeks to recover: “It’s a human thing to be scared. I don’t want my daughter and my son to grow up without me.”

She has two children, Tuesday, who just turned 4, and Kyle, 2. But she says her husband supports her.

Chris Adams, 33, a machinist, says he worries, of course. “I was pretty nervous, until I met another person who just donated a kidney. They’re just fine, so that helped with the nerves. Ever since she’s been teaching, she’s always doing something extra for her students.”

In the beginning, if all goes as planned, Adams will have half her kidney function with her remaining kidney, but then her body will compensate. If she stays healthy and exercises, she could have as much as 75 percent of her kidney function. The kidneys filter the body’s blood, removing toxins and excess fluid about every 30 minutes.

As a donor, she doesn’t have expenses related to testing and surgery.

“People need to know about this,” says Adams. “They can give people a second chance at life by being a living donor.”