OAKLAND -- Seven years of waiting are over for Jesus Navarro, an illegal immigrant who finally received a new kidney after his story motivated one man plus thousands of others to fight on his behalf for a transplant.
Navarro, 36, was recuperating at his small Oakland apartment Thursday with his wife and daughter after the successful transplant last week at UC San Francisco Medical Center. The hospital became embroiled in controversy nine months ago after Navarro came to believe -- despite having private health insurance, despite his wife's pledge to donate her own kidney -- that his immigration status doomed his chances of a transplant.
"I'm hoping to be feeling well enough to do all the things I wanted to do but couldn't," Navarro said in Spanish Thursday, after receiving a kidney from an organ donor. More than anything, it means finally being an active, engaged husband to his wife, Angelica, and a doting father to their 3-year-old daughter, Karen.
Until he lost his job in January, Navarro would spend 12 hours every afternoon and night tethered to a dialysis machine then wake before dawn to leave for his job as a welder at Pacific Steel in Berkeley.
"He never had time for us," said Angelica Navarro of her husband of eight years, "just for the machine."
Navarro's story went viral in January after this newspaper wrote about his plight, spurring Donald Kagan -- a 47-year-old San Ramon man who received a new kidney from a Nicaraguan
"Just because you're an immigrant doesn't mean you don't have a right to a lifesaving transplant,'' Kagan said.
More than 100,000 people across the country signed online petitions posted by Change.org, a social action group, to try to help. But others, irked that Navarro might take an organ away from a needy American citizen, suggested he go back to his home country of Mexico for the surgery.
More than 93,000 patients across the country are on the list for a kidney transplant, with more than 5,200 patients on UCSF's list. Because of a shortage of donor organs, only 350 people will receive a transplant this year at UCSF, one of the largest kidney transplant programs in the country.
Navarro had been waiting for nearly seven years before he got the phone call at 10:30 p.m. on Sept. 25 to rush to UCSF.
As he was wheeled into the operating room in the early hours of Sept. 27, his wife held his hand.
"I was telling him, 'Don't worry. Everything is going to be OK,' " she said. "When he left, I started to cry because I was worried."
The transplant almost didn't happen. In January, Navarro's story became public after word surfaced that he had been denied a kidney because he was an illegal immigrant. UCSF officials insisted it was a "misunderstanding." Instead, they said, Navarro was told he was being placed on "inactive" status on the recipient list because of concerns that he would not have reliable post-transplant care. But those concerns stemmed from Navarro's immigration status; after he lost his job, Navarro faced having to rely on government assistance for a critical part of his aftercare. "We wanted to make it clear we did not deny Mr. Navarro," said hospital spokeswoman Karin Rush-Monroe. "There was clearly a misunderstanding, and we did re-evaluate the communications process because we don't want any patient walking away thinking something different than we thought we conveyed."
The hospital has done transplant surgeries on illegal immigrants in the past, she added.
After reading Navarro's story, Kagan -- who received a kidney transplant in 2010 -- began working to help.
"It touched my heart," Kagan said. He worked with Navarro to make sure his health insurance continued after he lost his job, and he met with UCSF officials to encourage them to make their instructions more clear. He also connected with La Clinica de La Raza, an Oakland health clinic that volunteered to perform all of Navarro's post-surgery care for free, which returned Navarro to "active" status on the recipient list.
"He's like an angel to us," Angelica Navarro said of Kagan.
It's been a difficult road for the family, she said. At one point, her husband was so discouraged, he unplugged the catheter and threw the dialysis machine on the floor. Another time, he didn't want to go to his niece's quinceanera celebrating her 15th birthday because "he was so sad he wasn't going to make it to his daughter's" 15th birthday. And last Halloween, when Navarro couldn't take Karen to trick or treat, both mother and daughter were in tears.
"I hate this machine," Navarro said to his wife. "I hate it."
All signs are good that Navarro will make a complete recovery. His wife is looking forward to the simple things, like having dinner together as a family downstairs.
"I was hoping for the last seven years to see him like this," she said. "To have a normal life."
And later this month, that might include trick-or-treating.
Staff photographer Ray Chavez contributed to this report. Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.