AN ACT OF KINDNESSBy Chris Roberts \ EL PASO TIMES
A family's kindness -- expressed at a time of tragic loss -- would change everything for Ballesteros. At the age of 60, he says he now will know grandchildren yet to be born.
In his youth, Ballesteros was a boxer, weight lifter and runner, always fit. But in 1977, he contracted hepatitis. He had eaten bad fish or contaminated food in Mexico, doctors said.
"You're going to have to be careful the rest of your life," Ballesteros said, recounting what his doctor told him, "because this thing is going to follow you."
After that, he stayed in shape. It seemed a good way to improve the odds.
In 1993, he was planning to run a marathon and went to Houston to train. During one run he took a serious fall into some rocks. Shortly after, he began vomiting blood.
"It screwed up part of my liver, my spleen, part of my pancreas," Ballesteros said.
When doctors examined his injuries, they found serious organ damage had developed over the years. He had diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver and a stomach condition that was causing bleeding.
"They told me to go home and get my papers in order," Ballesteros said. "I came home and bought my funeral plan. It took me five years to pay it off."
About six years ago, doctors told him he was in the end stage of his illness.
"They said, 'This is your last year,' " Ballesteros said. "One thing everybody knows me for is not giving up."
But his kidneys had almost completely shut down by 2008. The toxins were taking over and he could barely comprehend what was happening to him. Ballesteros became more reliant on his wife, Graciela.
"He looked like death," she said.
Ballesteros' only hope was a transplant. He met all the criteria -- he was only a social drinker and the hepatitis had vanished -- and was entered on the transplant list. He needed both a kidney and a liver, which had to come from the same donor. A couple of times he was called about possible donors, but nothing had worked out.
On Aug. 8, at about 1:15 a.m., Anthony Varela was driving to one of his favorite Dallas burger joints, Jack in the Box.
"He was at a stoplight getting ready to turn left," said Renee Varela, Anthony's mother.
A 19-year-old drunken driver flying down the road at 80 mph slammed into Anthony Varela's vehicle, spinning it and ejecting him.
"He was not alive when the ambulance got there," Renee Varela said. "They resuscitated him."
At the age of 18, Anthony Varela -- a happy young man who loved video games and basketball -- was brain dead. Life support sustained his body.
Renee Varela asked hospital staff what would happen if she declined the organ donor request.
"They said, 'We just discard them,' " Varela said.
She considered his youthfulness, which meant her son's donation could provide recipients with many additional years of family time.
"He always put everybody before himself," Varela said. "This is probably what he would have chosen to do."
About 24 hours after the crash, Anthony Varela's organs were on their way to various operating rooms.
Ballesteros would receive a kidney and the liver. Another would receive the heart and the other kidney. A third would breathe with Anthony Varela's lungs. Others would benefit from his skin -- used for grafts -- and his corneas would restore sight.
"Because of him, three of us survived," Ballesteros said.
Ballesteros is scheduled to meet Varela in Dallas on Jan. 21. Both are nervous about a meeting framed by life and death.
"I hope (Varela's family) looks at me as a lucky individual instead of someone who replaced her son," Ballesteros said.
He thinks he has seen the young man, a ghost in the corner of his eye that vanishes when he turns his head to look.
Varela has heard that sometimes people take on the characteristics of their donors.
"I want to ask him, 'Do you have the desire to sit for 12 hours and play Xbox?,' " she said with a small laugh.