"I'll give you one of mine," Ann Lopez said to her husband the moment the couple learned he would need a kidney transplant. He thought she was joking. But George Lopez, star of ABC's The George Lopez Show, is the comic, not his wife.
And so, just before sunrise on a Tuesday in April of 2005, the Lopezes arrived at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, where they were prepped for surgery in neighboring rooms. Right before Ann was wheeled to the operating room --- 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 the operation," Ann recalls. "To me, this was about us, about our daughter, Mayan. But George, he comes from a very dysfunctional family, a horrific childhood. It was hard for him to accept that someone would give him the gift of life."
Ann remembers feeling excited, almost fearless, and definitely ready to get the operation over with. Not George.
"It was harder for him, because I was taken first," says Ann, who knew her husband was worried about her.
"I was crying. I thanked her and I told her I loved her," George recalls. "I was more concerned about her than I was about myself."Ann's operation lasted about two and a half hours. George's more complicated surgery took five. Both were successful. That night, tired and in pain, but relieved that it was over, the Lopezes lay in separate hospital rooms and talked to each other on the phone.
"I love you," Ann told George. "We're on the other side."
A Life With Kidney Disease
Getting to the other side was not easy. In April 2004, doctors told George the inevitable surgery would take place the following April. But first, there were 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 his relentless touring schedule, was used to working long hours both on the road and on his hit show, which first aired in 2002. But nothing prepared him for this.
"'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 and livelihoods."
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 without pain."
Now, says George, the pain and fatigue are gone. And they disappeared quickly. A near-fanatical golfer, George was back on the links 10 days after surgery. His complete recovery from near total kidney failure still surprises him.
"Even when you know you're going to be well, you don't [anticipate] how well you're going to be," says George, whose kidneys had literally been poisoned over the years from a congenital abnormality that caused a narrowing of his ureters, the tubes through which urine travels from each kidney to the bladder. A person normally has two kidneys with one ureter coming from each kidney. "It's a totally new experience, being healthy. It was like being woken up. I was so toxic. I felt toxic."
The kidney's primary function is to filter the bloodstream. As blood flows through the kidneys, waste is extracted from it and excreted as urine. But because of George's narrow ureters, waste could not flow freely out. Instead, it began to flow backward, slowly poisoning his kidneys and inching them closer to kidney failure. Though he never underwent dialysis, he came awfully close. By the time he was admitted to the hospital for surgery, George says, his kidneys were barely functioning and had shrunk so much they did not register on an ultrasound.
In fact, George's kidneys had never worked properly. Growing up in Southern California's San Fernando Valley, he frequently wet his bed, and this could have been related to the problem with his ureters. George remembers feeling ashamed. 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 his sufferings --- inspired him to write an episode on his sitcom in which his fictional son, Max, wets the bed repeatedly due to the same condition George had. George says he played the role as he might have done with his own daughter, Mayan --- if recent experiences hadn't taught him better.
"I [say to] Max: 'Don't tell your mom -- and don't drink water before going to bed.' It wasn't hard to do those lines. My character wouldn't have known or suspected something really was wrong."
Clues to Kidney Disease
At 17, George also had high blood pressure, which can be both a symptom of and a precursor to kidney disease.
Looking back, he's shocked that someone as young as he had hypertension. At the time, though, it raised no alarms, nor did the fatigue that had begun to plague him as an adult. He rarely saw a doctor. George says he believes the reason is, in large measure, cultural: "Latinos, we only go to the doctor when we are bleeding. We forget about things internal. Fatigue is just fatigue."
George's condition is only one path to kidney failure. The most common cause is diabetes, in which a buildup of sugar in the blood has a similarly poisonous effect. High blood pressure is another cause --- and an effect --- of failing kidneys. An estimated 375,000 Americans are currently undergoing treatment for kidney failure. It kills nearly 70,000 people each year.
Latinos are twice as likely as whites to develop diabetes, according to the National Kidney Foundation, putting them at greater risk for kidney disease as well. An estimated 13% of the Latino population has been diagnosed with diabetes. Many more have the disease and don't know it.
"The people who come to see me do stand-up, they never go to the doctor," George says of the many Latinos in the audience at his comedy shows. "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 surgeon Charles Modlin, MD, director of the Minority Men's Health Center at The Cleveland Clinic. Modlin, one of only a few African American transplant surgeons in the United States, describes the attitude of many African Americans and Latinos this way: "If you're feeling fine, there's no reason to get tested. And if you hurt, you grin and bear it."
George agrees. "That's the one thing I'd change about Latinos --- we don't want to know if it's bad news," he says. "Me? I'd go to the doctor in a minute now."
Moving Toward a Kidney Transplant
Crippling pain finally spurred George to get a long-overdue checkup. A hard lesson, it's one he now shares with others on his web site, on his television show, and as a spokesman, along with Ann, for the National Kidney Foundation.
As George worked on the show and awaited his operation, Ann took a battery of tests to prove what she already knew in her heart to be true: that as a donor, she was a match for her husband. She also hired a personal trainer to help 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 last 10 years. So, too, have the number of living donors like Ann. That's a welcome development, he says, because such kidneys tend to function better than those from deceased donors.
George sticks to his daily regimen of medications to ensure that his body does not reject Ann's kidney, some of which he will take for the rest of his life. He stays faithful to his monthly doctor appointments, exercises more, and has cut out fast food.
"I weighed 235 pounds when I found out I needed a new kidney," says the 6-foot Lopez. "Now I weigh 190."
Though the operation was a complete success --- Ann calls it "the dream transplant" --- it came with some side effects. One of the medications that George takes causes occasional hand tremors, making simple things, such as lifting a glass of water, frustrating and difficult. Those tremors also make it harder to play golf, a game that is sacred to the comedian.
In February, at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, his hands started to 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 I had the medicine in me, so maybe the shakes were also from nerves. I told myself, 'You can't hide it. This is heavy. You've got some strong medicine going through you.'"
Then the tremors cleared. His game improved. His humor returned and loosened him 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 other celebrities."