A gift greater than gold
Brothers E.J. and Luis Tamez were already close, but the challenge of end-stage kidney failure brought them even closer and gave E.J. a new purpose in life.
by Robin J. Johnson (B.A. ’11, M.A. ’13)
They didn’t talk much about it; it wasn’t something either of them brought up.
Eusebio “E.J.” Tamez’s little brother, Luis, was diagnosed with end-stage kidney disease in 2016 and, soon after, started dialysis. Yet the brothers kept their relationship close without discussing Luis’ condition. That lasted until one of E.J.’s monthly trips from Del Rio to visit his brother in McAllen: Luis’ condition had declined to the point that he could no longer pick up his 5-year-old son.
“That’s when something clicked in my head,” E.J. (B.B.A. ’92) said. “Here he is, his health is deteriorating, and what am I doing to help him? I’m not doing much, other than coming to see him.”
Already strong in his Catholic faith, it was an Adoration Community Theology Service (ACTS) retreat that reinforced the importance of family and faith for E.J. and showed him the path forward. It was time to have the hard talk about Luis’ health.
“I told him, ‘You know, you’re not giving me any feedback on whether the hospital in McAllen is calling you, and if you’ve been added to the waiting list or not to receive a kidney,'” he said. So Luis made an appointment with a transplant adviser at Methodist Hospital in San Antonio.
At this point, the plan was for Luis to join the kidney donation waiting list — essentially, hoping his turn would come before his health declined too far.
While Luis was undergoing testing and preparation at Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital, a doctor asked E.J. if he had thought about being a kidney donor for his brother. Without hesitation, E.J. agreed to the screening.
Growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, the Tamez family moved to San Antonio when E.J. was in high school. Eventually, his mother became homesick, so the family moved back, but E.J., the oldest of four boys, stayed in San Antonio to continue his education. He graduated from St. Mary’s University in 1992 with a degree in International Business.
During that time, Luis moved back to San Antonio to be with his brother, moving in with E.J. and working together at the same restaurant. The duo even helped each other out financially, including Luis pitching in to buy E.J.’s textbooks for college.
After a few years, Luis moved back to Mexico and married, while E.J. moved around Texas. However, the two remained close.
During that initial visit to Methodist in December 2016, without Luis knowing, doctors screened E.J. to see if he was a donor match. E.J. put the outcome in God’s hands: “If God wants me to do this, the sign is that I’m going to be a match.” He was a 100-percent match.
E.J. then dedicated his time to researching live organ donations, not yet telling his brother what he was considering. E.J. learned that many patients died while waiting for a kidney, and that live organ donation was much rarer than deceased organ donation, even though live donations have better outcomes. He met an advocate who had successfully donated a kidney, easing E.J.’s fears about the process.
The donor from Michigan, who became E.J.’s confidant through the process, had donated to a total stranger, and encouraged two others to do the same. That relationship inspired E.J. to become an advocate for live organ donation, encouraging others to see the opportunity to help those waiting for a kidney.
Once physicians determined Luis was healthy enough to go through the surgery, the brothers underwent the transplant on March 1, 2017 — Ash Wednesday — just three months after E.J. was first screened as a potential donor. Reaffirmed by his faith, E.J. received his ashes in the recovery soon after waking from surgery.
After the surgery, Luis said, “You get used to being sick, and you don’t know what it is to be healthy anymore — until you are.”
“That touched me very deeply,” E.J. said.
A half-marathon and half-Iron Man athlete before surgery, E.J. regained his strength to compete (and win) a relay race with his family. Luis has also gained his life back, going to the beach with his family and cycling up to 8 miles a day.
Luis expressed his gratitude for his big brother’s selflessness in an emotional letter, reiterating what he told E.J. after the surgery, “Thank you for giving my kids their father back.”
In the months since the successful transplant, Luis, who would otherwise have been on a waiting list for five years or more, and E.J. have become spokesmen for live donor transplants, speaking at conferences about their experience. An avid motorcycle rider, E.J. has used his hobby to further advocate and plans to create a motorcycle club for kidney donors and those screened to become donors.
“If we are able to help one or two people out there, my brother and I, that’s going to make a huge difference to somebody,” E.J. said. “Knowing that you did everything you could to help someone else regain their life — I don’t think there’s any kind of money out there that can pay for that.”
To learn more about live organ donation, call 1-844-746-3338 or visit sahealth.com/kidneylivedonor.