Salinas-area men share friendship, kidney donation
BY DAVE NORDSTRAND | THE CALIFORNIAN
His 15-inch abdominal transplant scar still healing, Juan Carlos Castellanos of Castroville is back on his feet and looking at a healthy future.
"Before my surgery, I was always very tired," Castellanos said. "I'd fall asleep three, four times a day at work. Just doze off at my desk.
"It was all the toxins in my bloodstream. I didn't realize how sick I was."
The person who donated the kidney that's already turned around Castellanos' life is Bill Sutton, a longtime friend and fellow hiker.
Sutton is a Salinas native, a 1970 Salinas High graduate and, now, a 58-year-old retiree. He and his wife, Diane, and their little white dog, Jessica, live in an RV park near San Juan Bautista and tour the country in their vehicle.
"Absolutely, I felt privileged to be able to do this for Juan," Sutton said. "Helping him has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life."
Castellanos met Sutton in 2000. Sutton was a labor contractor for a Salinas moving company. Castellanos worked for him for a time.
The two became friends. They shared a passion for hiking and their treks took them deep into the Ventana Wilderness and the Sierras.
Castellanos today works as a salesman at Sam Linder Honda Cadillac in Salinas.
He became aware of the severity of his kidney problem in December of 2008, when his blood pressure hit a stratospheric 258/159.
"A lot of damage had occurred as a result of my blood pressure spiking," he said.
His kidneys had about 30 percent function, which quickly dropped to 20 percent, qualifying him for the donor list at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, Castellanos said.
Unfortunately, it takes an average seven years to find a matching kidney, he was told.
"At that point, the fear is dialysis," Castellanos said. "Three times a week, three hours each time. Plus, would I be able to continue working? These things weighed on me."
Part of the transplant pre-process involves "packages," materials handed to potential donors. The packages detail surgical risks, transplant procedures, a body's reaction and more. Castellanos gave several to family members.
"Bill asked me to give him a package, too," Castellanos said. "I said, 'Are you sure?' He said, 'Let's just go through the process.' "
After many medical tests, it was determined that Sutton was, indeed, a potential blood and tissue match.
The exhaustive screening was impressive, said Sutton, who gave 37 vials of blood during the months-long process. Doctors had to confirm not only that he was a match, but that his own health would be safe during and after the transplant.
Sutton and his wife, Diane, were on a trip along the West Coast, having breakfast with friends in a southern Oregon restaurant, when the hospital called to say it was a go-ahead. They turned around and headed south, he said.
On Sept. 10, a surgical team performed the transplant.
On their gurneys en route into the operating room, the men felt little apprehension, given UCSF's world-class reputation as a kidney transplant center.
The surgeons worked on Sutton five hours. When they put his kidney in Castellanos, they told him they were surprised to see the organ begin to function immediately.
Sutton's wife, Diane, walked down to Castellanos' room to see how he was doing. She couldn't believe the transformation.
Castellanos couldn't believe it either.
"That first night, I couldn't sleep," he said. "I was suddenly so full of energy. The minute they connected the kidney, it was filtering out my blood, cleaning out the bloodstream."
Within hours, the men were beginning the recovery regimen.
Part of that meant walking a mile, which they did by taking slow but steady laps around the corridor of the transplant center on the hospital's ninth floor. (Walking helps the circulation and promotes healing.)
For their early efforts, each received a souvenir hospital T-shirt inscribed with a "9 Long," a reference to the ninth floor and to the "long" distance walked.
On Sunday, Sept. 12, Sutton came home. He felt pain, but medication helped, and he was soon able to stop using it.
That night, he and Diane dined on French dip, a meal made for them by neighbors in the RV park, Mission Park RV. The park and residents, too, and Sam Linder Honda Cadillac and others in the Auto Mall, all had helped support the transplant effort. And insurance covered all the procedural and surgery costs involved for Sutton.
Chances are Castellanos will be back at work in eight weeks, he said.
Long-term, he'll have to take medication to control his blood pressure and to control his body's natural tendency to reject the new kidney.
"Short-term, I'll be on [anti-]bacterial, fungal and viral meds," he said.
He'll have to watch his diet and exercise, too. Not a problem. A week after they sewed him up, he was walking an hour a day on flat ground. And he and Sutton hiked a mile and a half in the hills near Salinas this weekend.
He'll have regular check-ups with his doctor, too.
Otherwise, he can look forward to a mostly normal life, he said.
Castellanos acknowledges his luck in finding a match so quickly. His limitless thanks goes to his friend for donating the kidney.
"All in all, I consider it a miracle," Castellanos said.