Ngoc “Cindy” Nguyen has given life to three of the people she most loves in the world — her daughter, Lillian, age 4; her son, Noah, age 1; and her husband, Liem, age 43.
Cindy gave birth to her two children. And in January 2021, Cindy gave Liem one of her kidneys, giving him the gift of life in a different but no less beautiful way.
“My wife and I both came from Vietnam,” Liem says. “I’ve been here for 25 years and my wife has been in the U.S. for 11 years. We met in beauty school in 2010 and began dating.”
About 4 years later, Liem, an avid runner, began to feel pain in his knee and ankle. Thinking it might be a runner’s injury, he went to see a doctor, and instead was diagnosed with severe kidney disease.
From planning a wedding to discussing a transplant
Feeling shocked and scared, and because they were in the midst of planning their 2015 wedding, Liem chose to keep his diagnosis — officially determined to be IgA nephropathy, which occurs when IgA protein builds up in the kidneys — to himself. He didn’t want to worry Cindy or other family members.
However, as his kidney function continued to decrease, he knew he had to tell her he would likely one day need a kidney transplant. She responded by offering one of her own.
“I was scared for my husband,” Cindy says. “But also hopeful we would be a match because I wanted him to have my kidney, not someone else’s. I prayed every day we would be a match.”
Prayers answered, plans paused
Cindy’s prayers were answered. Her blood and tissues were found to be compatible — or a “match” — to Liem, and she began the process of being further assessed as a potential living donor.
Simultaneously, and unexpectedly, another hope of the couple was also being realized. Cindy and Liem found out they were expecting their second child, Noah, and the transplant process was paused.
Because Liem was not in need of dialysis, he and Cindy decided along with his care team that they would wait until after Noah’s birth to see if she was still an eligible kidney donor. And while his kidney disease progressed throughout her pregnancy and the first months of Noah’s life, Liem surprised everyone by being able to continue running up to 6 days a week and working in the nail salon they own.
When little Noah reached his fifth month, Liem and Cindy began to discuss resuming Cindy’s donor testing and moved forward shortly after, although with cautious optimism. They had been advised that Cindy’s blood could change after giving birth, possibly affecting her ability to donate a kidney to Liem.
“I was fine with the thought of having to go on dialysis instead of having a transplant because I was having second thoughts about Cindy giving me her kidney,” Liem says. “I was afraid the worst could happen during surgery and I didn’t want anything to happen to my wife.”
Back on track for transplant
Liem’s concerns didn’t last long. He credits the transplant team at Sharp’s Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program, which included transplant coordinators Sarah Solon, RN, and Lan Nguyen, RN, (no relation), with helping him to feel confident in moving forward with the transplant.
“Cindy is a great wife,” Lan Nguyen says. “She really wanted to donate her kidney to Liem and less than 1 year after giving birth, she called me to request an evaluation for donation. I can tell she has a tremendous love for her husband.”
Solon notes that Liem did his part by working hard to stay healthy during the year they waited to resume transplant plans. “He took good care of himself, and it was a pleasure to work with them both,” she says.
After learning that Cindy was indeed a match once again, the transplant surgery was scheduled for Jan. 4, 2021. Both Liem and Cindy were eager to learn what they needed to do to ensure the transplant was a success.
“The whole transplant experience at Sharp, from the beginning to the end, was very pleasant,” Liem says. “We were so informed and supported. They guided us along every step of the way, and it was overwhelming how helpful and caring everyone was.”
Blessings abound for both
Even the timing of the transplant — just as cases of COVID-19 were surging — helped the couple with their recovery. Because pandemic restrictions led to the closure of their salon for several months, they were able to rest and recover at home with their family, including Cindy’s mom.
“My mother-in-law moved in with us and was such a blessing,” Liem says. “She helped us with our kids and around the house with cooking, laundry and everything else that we couldn’t do on our own during our recovery.”
Now, just a few months post-transplant, Liem is back to running, and both he and Cindy are working in their salon. They are focused on their health and have improved their diets, determined to take care of the single kidney each now has.
“Receiving a kidney from a living donor, especially someone who is family, I can’t ask for anything more,” Liem says. “My wife has given me the gift of life — a second chance at life.”
Learn more about becoming a living kidney donor or register as an organ donor with Donate Life America. You can also register as an organ donor when you apply for or renew your driver’s license or ID card.