"I'll give you one of mine," Ann Lopez said to her husband themoment the couple learned he would need a kidney transplant. He thought she wasjoking. But George Lopez, star of ABC's The George Lopez Show, is thecomic, not his wife.
And so, just before sunrise on a Tuesday in April of 2005, the Lopezesarrived at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where they were preppedfor surgery in neighboring rooms. Right before Ann was wheeled to the operatingroom --- her surgery began first --- she gave George a letter and a rosary.
"I wrote that I was doing this out of love, and that I had faith in theoperation," Ann recalls. "To me, this was about us, about our daughter,Mayan. But George, he comes from a very dysfunctional family, a horrificchildhood. It was hard for him to accept that someone would give him the giftof life."
Ann remembers feeling excited, almost fearless, and definitely ready to getthe operation over with. Not George.
"It was harder for him, because I was taken first," says Ann, whoknew her husband was worried about her.
"I was crying. I thanked her and I told her I loved her," Georgerecalls. "I was more concerned about her than I was about myself."Ann'soperation lasted about two and a half hours. George's more complicated surgerytook five. Both were successful. That night, tired and in pain, but relievedthat it was over, the Lopezes lay in separate hospital rooms and talked to eachother on the phone.
"I love you," Ann told George. "We're on the otherside."
A Life With Kidney Disease
Getting to the other side was not easy. In April 2004, doctors told Georgethe inevitable surgery would take place the following April. But first, therewere 24 episodes of The George Lopez Show to be shot. The comedian,whose rise to stardom on the stand-up circuit was due in no small part to hisrelentless touring schedule, was used to working long hours both on the roadand on his hit show, which first aired in 2002. But nothing prepared him forthis.
"'Man, I'm dying,' I told Ann after the first day," he recalls."But I love the show, and I'm responsible for 170 people's lives andlivelihoods."
Tired, often in agony, George nevertheless met his production schedule.Work, he says, released him --- at least temporarily ---from his suffering:"When you're performing on stage, there's a weightlessness. You're withoutpain."
Now, says George, the pain and fatigue are gone. And they disappearedquickly. A near-fanatical golfer, George was back on the links 10 days aftersurgery. His complete recovery from near total kidney failure still surpriseshim.
"Even when you know you're going to be well, you don't [anticipate] howwell you're going to be," says George, whose kidneys had literally beenpoisoned over the years from a congenital abnormality that caused a narrowingof his ureters, the tubes through which urine travels from each kidney to thebladder. A person normally has two kidneys with one ureter coming from eachkidney. "It's a totally new experience, being healthy. It was like beingwoken up. I was so toxic. I felt toxic."
The kidney's primary function is to filter the bloodstream. As blood flowsthrough the kidneys, waste is extracted from it and excreted as urine. Butbecause of George's narrow ureters, waste could not flow freely out. Instead,it began to flow backward, slowly poisoning his kidneys and inching them closerto kidney failure. Though he never underwent dialysis, he came awfully close.By the time he was admitted to the hospital for surgery, George says, hiskidneys were barely functioning and had shrunk so much they did not register onan ultrasound.
In fact, George's kidneys had never worked properly. Growing up in SouthernCalifornia's San Fernando Valley, he frequently wet his bed, and this couldhave been related to the problem with his ureters. George remembers feelingashamed. And his family? They showed no concern. In fact, they made fun of him."As a little boy, I grew up angry, alone, teased, and tormented,"George writes in his 2004 autobiography, Why You Crying?
His new kidney --- and his family's once-cavalier attitude toward hissufferings --- inspired him to write an episode on his sitcom in which hisfictional son, Max, wets the bed repeatedly due to the same condition Georgehad. George says he played the role as he might have done with his owndaughter, Mayan --- if recent experiences hadn't taught him better.
"I [say to] Max: 'Don't tell your mom -- and don't drink water beforegoing to bed.' It wasn't hard to do those lines. My character wouldn't haveknown or suspected something really was wrong."
Clues to Kidney Disease
At 17, George also had high blood pressure, which can be both a symptom ofand a precursor to kidney disease.
Looking back, he's shocked that someone as young as he had hypertension. Atthe time, though, it raised no alarms, nor did the fatigue that had begun toplague him as an adult. He rarely saw a doctor. George says he believes thereason is, in large measure, cultural: "Latinos, we only go to the doctorwhen we are bleeding. We forget about things internal. Fatigue is justfatigue."
George's condition is only one path to kidney failure. The most common causeis diabetes, in which a buildup of sugar in the blood has a similarly poisonouseffect. High blood pressure is another cause --- and an effect --- of failingkidneys. An estimated 375,000 Americans are currently undergoing treatment forkidney failure. It kills nearly 70,000 people each year.
Latinos are twice as likely as whites to develop diabetes, according to theNational Kidney Foundation, putting them at greater risk for kidney disease aswell. An estimated 13% of the Latino population has been diagnosed withdiabetes. Many more have the disease and don't know it.
"The people who come to see me do stand-up, they never go to thedoctor," George says of the many Latinos in the audience at his comedyshows. "I tell them, you need to go! You need to get your blood checked.That can tell you so much."
Minorities in general are often hesitant to see a doctor, says surgeonCharles Modlin, MD, director of the Minority Men's Health Center at TheCleveland Clinic. Modlin, one of only a few African American transplantsurgeons in the United States, describes the attitude of many African Americansand Latinos this way: "If you're feeling fine, there's no reason to gettested. And if you hurt, you grin and bear it."
George agrees. "That's the one thing I'd change about Latinos --- wedon't want to know if it's bad news," he says. "Me? I'd go to thedoctor in a minute now."
Moving Toward a Kidney Transplant
Crippling pain finally spurred George to get a long-overdue checkup. A hardlesson, it's one he now shares with others on his web site, on his televisionshow, and as a spokesman, along with Ann, for the National KidneyFoundation.
As George worked on the show and awaited his operation, Ann took a batteryof tests to prove what she already knew in her heart to be true: that as adonor, she was a match for her husband. She also hired a personal trainer tohelp her get into the best shape possible before the operation. A year later,and 15 pounds lighter, she continues with the trainer three days a week.
Transplant success rates, Modlin says, have gone up dramatically in the last10 years. So, too, have the number of living donors like Ann. That's a welcomedevelopment, he says, because such kidneys tend to function better than thosefrom deceased donors.
George sticks to his daily regimen of medications to ensure that his bodydoes not reject Ann's kidney, some of which he will take for the rest of hislife. He stays faithful to his monthly doctor appointments, exercises more, andhas cut out fast food.
"I weighed 235 pounds when I found out I needed a new kidney," saysthe 6-foot Lopez. "Now I weigh 190."
Though the operation was a complete success --- Ann calls it "the dreamtransplant" --- it came with some side effects. One of the medications thatGeorge takes causes occasional hand tremors, making simple things, such aslifting a glass of water, frustrating and difficult. Those tremors also make itharder to play golf, a game that is sacred to the comedian.
In February, at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, his hands startedto shake when he was on the ninth hole. He missed his putt-twice.
"It was the first time I'd played golf in front of other people when Ihad the medicine in me, so maybe the shakes were also from nerves. I toldmyself, 'You can't hide it. This is heavy. You've got some strong medicinegoing through you.'"
Then the tremors cleared. His game improved. His humor returned and loosenedhim up. Asked whether anyone had noticed his hands shaking as he struggled ---and failed --- to control his putt, he laughed and then did what he does best:He made a joke.
"I think people just thought I sucked like all the othercelebrities."