"You're a real lifesaver!"
It's a comment casually offered, perhaps if someone gives you a ride when you have car trouble or dives in to help you when a project runs late. But like first responders, military troops and health care heroes, Candi Burquez, a tax accountant by trade, has genuinely earned the high praise.
Candi, an extremely active mom of two grown sons in her early 50s, can trace the seeds of her own form of heroism back to the day she drove a close friend with stage 4 cancer to a radiation appointment. Seeing his concern about his prognosis and desperate to help, Candi told him if only there were a body part or organ she could donate to assist in his healing, she'd do it in a heartbeat.
Sadly, there was nothing she or anyone could do, and he passed away a few weeks later. Candi could not shake the calling to help someone in need.
"I was hanging out with my friend's wife shortly after he passed, and we were discussing a shared acquaintance who was experiencing kidney failure and needed a donor," Candi says. "A light went off in my head. I told her about how I wished I could have saved her husband's life, but now knew I wanted to offer to be tested as a potential living kidney donor for our friend."
Soon after, Candi was scheduled for a litany of phone interviews, exams and blood tests, and was found to be an excellent match. She was thrilled. However, within days, the recipient was notified that a deceased donor kidney was available, and her transplant team agreed it was her best option. Candi was happy for her, but felt a little out of sorts that her desire to help was thwarted.
"The decision to be a donor was such an emotional one," Candi says. "I didn't quite know what was next for me."
After deciding to take a couple of weeks to reflect on how to move forward, Candi joined a living kidney donor support page on Facebook and enjoyed reading through the many stories. One in particular, about a mother searching for a kidney for her 35-year-old daughter who had a 4-year-old, resonated with Candi. "As a mom myself, this story tugged at my heart strings."
A match made in cyberspace
The story she read was of Aja Best, a single mother who discovered she was experiencing kidney failure during her pregnancy with her daughter, Giuliana. She was told her illness might not only affect her own life, but also the life of her unborn child.
"They told me I was sick, had a disease that could cause my child to be born prematurely or that I could even lose my baby, but didn't know exactly what it was," Aja says. "Then they said, 'But don't stress about it, because it's not good for you or the baby,' as if that were possible."
Aja gave birth to Giuliana at 33 weeks into her pregnancy. She weighed just 3 pounds, 3 ounces, but was perfect in her mom's eyes. Unfortunately, soon after the birth, Aja learned she would need a new kidney. She would have to join the more than 93,000 other Americans on the kidney transplant waiting list, many who will wait up to a decade for a match.
"My mom tested to be a live kidney donor and was approved, but ruled out at the last minute; my brother was tested and approved - we even had our surgery scheduled - but it was canceled the day before," Aja says. "Over two years, 22 people tried to donate a kidney to me without luck. It was pure devastation."
However, Aja's mom, Kim Abagat, refused to give up. She posted in the Facebook group Candi happened to join, put magnets on her car with a message about her daughter needing a kidney, and even wanted to have T-shirts made with a message about their search for a donor to wear while walking around Disneyland.
In the meanwhile, Aja began dialysis - 8 hours and 45 minutes every day. However, it didn't diminish her hopes for receiving a new kidney, even if it meant she had to wait several years.
"I resigned myself to being on dialysis and accepting that it would likely be 7 to 10 years before I would receive a donor kidney," Aja says. "My future was on pause - I wanted to get married to my boyfriend, Patrick, and have more kids. I wanted to have enough energy and feel well enough to play with the daughter I already had. It was a really rough time."
And then Aja's mom told her about a woman named Candi on the Facebook support page. Candi had expressed an interest in being tested to be Aja's living donor. Cautiously hopeful, Aja asked her mom to see if Candi would be willing to talk to Tammy Wright, RN, BSN, a transplant coordinator at Sharp HealthCare's Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Center who had worked with Aja since 2018.
Following a calling to change someone's life
Candi was more than willing. Traveling to San Diego from her home in Carpinteria, a small beachside town near Santa Barbara, she proceeded with two more months of blood draws, counseling and testing, and was identified as an excellent match.
Tammy was especially taken with Candi's commitment to donating her kidney to Aja. She helped finalize the details so that Aja's transplant surgery could at last be scheduled.
"I have seen many people during my 17 years of being here at the transplant center," she says. "Transplants change lives and I was happy to be a part of helping to make this transplant happen."
Unfortunately, to Aja's disbelief, her surgery once again had to be canceled because she was hospitalized for illness related to her kidney failure.
"Aja had IgA nephropathy, a chronic kidney disease also known as Berger's disease," says Dr. Marquis Hart, a board-certified surgeon and kidney and pancreas specialist affiliated with Sharp Memorial Hospital. "Her case is unique because she is young, she was on dialysis for more than two years and had waited for a long time for a transplant because several attempts fell through."
But this time would be different. They rescheduled the surgery for four weeks later, what Aja calls the "most miserable four weeks ever," and the two women were finally able to meet in person, just two days before the transplant.
Candi Burquez (left) and Aja Best (right) prepare for their kidney transplant.
"Our first meeting was amazing," Candi says. "Aja was quiet and I could tell she still wasn't allowing herself to believe the transplant would actually take place. But I was determined to give Giuliana her mom back."
Dr. Hart performed the transplant November 9, 2020, at Sharp Memorial Hospital. It was a success - Candi's healthy kidney was transplanted to Aja, who now has a total of three kidneys: two that function at 1% combined, and one - Candi's donated kidney - that is fully functional.
The possibility of a future
According to Dr. Hart, the new kidney reset the clock for Aja. She can live a normal, productive life with full energy to do the things she loves and without the worries associated with dialysis and illness.
"I feel light-years different," Aja says. "Before, I was just trying to survive, and now I can finally live. I can play with my daughter, my relationships are better and I can finally talk about a future that is possible. I am starting anew and I am so, so lucky."
As for Candi, she's feeling pretty great too. Now back to walking or hiking 6 miles every day and going about her day-to-day activities, she is very glad she followed her desire to be a living kidney donor, which she calls "life-changing," both for Aja and herself.
"Hearing how good Aja is doing makes me feel great," Candi says. "I know in my heart this was something I was meant to do, and the doctors have told me I will live a long, healthy, normal and full life."
As will Aja. Now volunteering with the National Kidney Foundation as a donation advocate and hoping to go back to full-time work in marketing in February, Aja is most grateful for her newfound energy and passion to live.
"Candi has given me the best gift anyone can give - she literally saved my life," she says. "I no longer have to be scared every moment of every day. In fact, I plan on being happy every single day."
Learn about becoming a living kidney donor, or register as an organ donor with Donate Life America. You can also select "yes" to agree to organ donation when you apply for or renew your driver's license.