For the media

Decades-long friendship leads to kidney donation

By The Health News Team | April 12, 2022
Joe Gonzales and Amanda Cuellar at Sharp Memorial Hospital

Joe thanks his decades-long friend, Amanda, as well as his Sharp care team for receiving a kidney transplant.

In fall 2020, Joe Gonzales, 38, couldn’t believe his routine lab results. He was convinced there was a mistake. How could he — someone who was always healthy — suddenly have issues with his kidneys?

“I redid my lab work just to make sure, but my results again weren’t good,” says Joe, a family nurse practitioner from Brawley, a city in the Imperial Valley.

Soon, he was referred to a nephrologist who performed a biopsy. Joe then received a diagnosis — he had focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), a rare disease that scars the kidneys’ filters. The condition can ultimately lead to kidney disease or failure.

“I was in denial for a while,” says Joe. “As someone who treats patients, I wasn’t used to my role being reversed and needing help.”

A sudden diagnosis leads to search for a donor
To monitor his kidney levels, Joe was referred to Dr. Jeffrey Halldorson, a kidney transplant surgeon affiliated with Sharp Community Medical Group and Sharp Memorial Hospital.

Eventually, Joe learned his kidneys were deteriorating; he needed to start dialysis or receive a kidney transplant.

Amanda Cuellar, 45, a family and psychiatric nurse practitioner who shares a 20-year friendship with Joe, was shocked when she heard the news.

“It all just seemed so sudden,” she says. “Joe told me he felt anxious about telling his friends and family that he needed a kidney donor.”

Without Joe asking her, Amanda decided to get tested to see if she would be a match.

“I just felt called to do it,” she says. “We instantly clicked when we first met nearly two decades ago. My kids call him their uncle. He’s become more than a friend — he’s family.”

A friendship spanning decades
With both Joe and Amanda working as nurses, their friendship deepened after they first met. Joe credits Amanda for motivating him to pursue a higher degree in nursing.

“I was a nurse aide at first, and she was a registered nurse,” he says. “I ended up earning a master’s degree in nursing, and she pursued another master’s degree at the same university, so we were able to graduate together.”

Throughout the years, the two also traveled to several countries for medical missions. Now, however, Joe was growing more fatigued, and his eyes and legs were swollen.

Amanda completed the donor exams and lab work and later learned she was a match. This inspired her to lead a healthier lifestyle.

“I loved pancitos,” she says of her favorite Mexican bread rolls. “But I changed my diet and eventually lost 25 pounds.”

Sharing a journey to health and happiness
In early March, the two friends’ surgery took place at Sharp Memorial Hospital. Because Joe was able to avoid dialysis, his procedure was called a preemptive kidney transplant.

“My entire journey has felt surreal,” says Joe. “I am grateful for Amanda’s selfless gift and for my exceptional Sharp care team. As someone who works in health care myself, I was impressed with how structured the transplant process was at Sharp.”

Instead of feeling nervous, Amanda was excited for the procedure. She thanks her Sharp care team, including her surgeon, Dr. Marquis Hart, for helping her feel at ease.

“Without a kidney transplant, Joe would have had to be on dialysis, which can be tough for many individuals,” says Dr. Hart. “It’s heart-warming to see that Amanda was able to donate her kidney for him, and I am very pleased to have been able to help.”

Today, both Joe and Amanda are doing well, and the two will continue their classes at the University of San Diego to pursue doctorate degrees in nursing. Joe says that Amanda gave him more life, and she is happy to see him healthy again.

“Joe is beloved by so many people in our community,” she says. “From my experience, I’ve learned that donating life is the best gift you can give someone.”

Learn more about living kidney donation at Sharp HealthCare.

For the news media: To talk with Dr. Halldorson or Dr. Hart about this story, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at

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