For more than four years, he lived as a prisoner to illness.
Arturo Martinez, a 2008 Decatur High School graduate, was always active growing up. He participated in athletics and theater. At 19, he was in his second semester of college and heavily involved in the theater arts program at West Texas A&M in Canyon when suddenly he started getting very sick.
He couldn’t keep food down. His body was convulsed with cramps. Every day brought more symptoms until, at the urging of friends and family, he finally visited a doctor.
The next day he was back for the results, his backpack strapped on, ready to go to class as soon as the appointment was over.
“The doctor came in slowly and quietly,” Arturo said. “He had a surprised look on his face.”
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“According to these sheets, you should be dead. Your kidneys stopped working. You need to contact someone right now. I can’t let you leave here.”
Arturo was suffering from end-stage renal disease, with less than 2 percent kidney function. Both of his kidneys were abnormally small. Instead of growing to the size of fists, they had never gotten bigger than a plum and a walnut.
“I was a ticking time bomb,” Arturo said.
He flew home right away and went straight to the operating room.
From then on he lived only due to dialysis, a process that took almost half a day, every day. He was tethered to a white and blue box-shaped machine he kept at home. The dialysis machine filtered his blood, doing what his kidneys could not, and keeping him alive.
Kidneys play a variety of vital roles in regulating the body, not only removing waste and excess water, but secreting hormones, reabsorbing nutrients and helping control blood pressure. The machine was doing all that for him.
“I had to do it for up to 10-and-a-half hours … every night,” he said. “It kind of took over my life. I had to adjust everything according to my dialysis.”
It took an hour or more just to set up the machine. He had to be very careful not to get an infection.
“It was a whole different life, but as time went on I adjusted to it,” he said.
From then on it was a matter of waiting. The only thing that could free him from the machine was a donated kidney. But with his rare blood type of B-positive, he didn’t know when, or even if, that day would come.
Arturo had been through this all before.
His mother, Hortencia Martinez, lost her life to a kidney disorder called Wegener’s granulomatosis, an autoimmune-type disease that causes serious damage to the kidneys and lungs. It’s a rare and dangerous disease that is fatal in almost 90 percent of all cases.
After battling her disease for 10 years, playing her own life-or-death waiting game, Hortencia died in 2005. Arturo was only 15.
“She was about to get the transplant,” Arturo said. “She’d had a surgery prepping her for it … She was so close.”
Because of all he’d gone through with his mother, he already knew a great deal about the struggle he was facing.
“It was so easy to learn how to deal with my condition because of growing up with my mom,” he said. “My mom had to go through this. We all had to learn how to use the machine.
“That’s why I adapted so fast. I learned what she was doing. I learned what her diet was and how she treated herself with the machine. Things change in 10 years, but a lot of stuff was similar.
“She would get depressed at times and not take care of herself like she needed. I learned from her how important it is to take care of yourself and the equipment, and prevent an infection.”
Through the years of waiting, he tried to stay positive, although it wasn’t easy being tied to a machine just for survival.
“I felt like a burden to my family,” he said. “I always had to do this and do that. I couldn’t travel and if I did I had to take all this stuff with me. They said I wasn’t, but I still felt that way.”
It caused him to feel alone. And the one person who could have understood what he was going through was gone.
“My mom was the one who did understand,” he said. “And she was gone. Now I truly understand what she felt.
“Every once in a while it got depressing because I couldn’t do much. I was exhausted some days. I was trying to live a normal life, but it was hard. Instead of going to school I was having to go to appointments.
“It was so hard. I just tried to be strong all the time. I tried to not look sick or feel sick, but I couldn’t always handle it. It was rough. You just try to stay positive, and it helps.
“I know my mom would have wanted me to strive on and feel like I’m going to get a transplant, no matter what. She taught me to live my life and keep struggling and pushing.
“I just kept on going and telling myself, ‘One day it will happen.’”
New lease on life
He kept a bag packed. It contained a couple of changes of clothes, a toothbrush and some reading material. He never knew when the call would come. But when it did, he had to be ready to grab it and go.
At 23, after more than four years of waiting, he finally got that call on June 16.
“It was a Sunday,” he said. “I had just had dinner with one of my friends in Keller. We were … almost back to Decatur on U.S. 287 when I got a call. This was a number I didn’t know. But I answered it.”
It was a woman named Sandy with UT-Southwestern Medical Center. She told him they had a kidney for him.
“How fast can you get to Dallas?”
“I’m leaving right now.”
“We were so happy,” Arturo said. ” We were screaming in the car.”
They rushed to his house to grab his bag, assemble his family, and they all left for the hospital.
Once he arrived the wait continued. He sat in a room for hours. As of Monday morning, he was still waiting. Someone finally told him that they had two kidneys and one might work for him. Then he waited longer. Finally at 5:30 p.m. they took him into the operating room. He could hardly believe it was happening.
He woke up to the sound of a basketball game on a television. It was June 17. It was the middle of game 5 of the NBA Finals between Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs. Danny Green was setting a record for the number of three-pointers made in the NBA Finals.
But the real news was that Arturo Martinez was getting a new kidney.
“It felt so long,” Arturo said. “But at the same time, the years went by so quickly.”
He felt a difference as soon as the surgery was completed.
“Everything leading up to this day was a blessing,” he said three weeks after the surgery. “I should have been dead. I couldn’t have done it without my family and friends and the clinic that helped me learn everything I could.
“I’m ready to start this new life and see where it takes me.”
And after all that waiting. The only thing he knows about the donor is they were from Plano. He doesn’t know their age, their sex, how they died, anything.
“I want to meet the family,” he said. “I would love to get to know the family. I’m so grateful to them. I’m going to let them know this is not going to be a wasted kidney. I’m going to do something good with my life.
“In just one second, just one blink, you could be gone. And I realize to just take it day-by-day. You never know when it’s your last. I have so much appreciation for life. I’m going to strive to make every day a better day. Not just for me, but whoever I’m around.”
He’s still waiting – recuperating and anticipating his new life. But the stitches on his abdomen are the only sign left of his former prison.