Strong as Ever: A Powerlifter's Kidney Transplant Journey

January 28, 2016 Ervin Ruzics, MD

SJO-kidney-transplantTracie Marquez shares her experience of receiving a donor kidney, and life after a transplant

Tracie Marquez is a world record-setting powerlifter. But, until six months ago, this otherwise seemingly healthy and active Huntington Beach resident was on dialysis 18 hours a week due to polycystic kidney failure.

Tracie thought her life would change in July 2016, when after only two weeks of being placed on the kidney transplant list and three years on dialysis, she received a phone call from St. Joseph Hospital, Orange: there was a kidney available for her that was an identical match and, with kidney transplants, the better the match, the lower the risks of complications and rejection after transplant surgery.

But there was one problem – Tracie had a tooth infection, which meant she was disqualified to receive a transplant, and the kidney instead went to the next person on the transplant waiting list. She was devastated.

“I told my mom, ‘What if that was my one chance?’ I thought it might take years to get another opportunity like that,” says Tracie, 53, herself a mother of two grown children.

Less than two months later, she received a second call and there was another “perfect” kidney match for Tracie.

Ervin Ruzics, MD, medical director and kidney transplant surgeon at the St. Joseph Hospital Kidney Transplant Center in Orange, California, and Tracie’s physician, says this was “a tremendous stroke of good fortune.”

“People with her blood type are typically on the transplant wait list for about 10 years,” he said. “The fact that she received the perfect HLA match, well, that’s the holy grail of kidney transplants. The chances of that are like pulling a winning lottery ticket.”

After receiving the second call, Tracie immediately went to St. Joseph Hospital, Orange. Her mother rushed home from a trip to New York to be by her side. The transplant team did further testing on Tracie and the new kidney to determine the viability. On Sept. 22, 2016, she underwent a successful three-and-a-half-hour kidney transplant surgery.

“Tracie had a very straightforward and uncomplicated transplant,” says Dr. Ruzics. “Transplants are extremely dangerous—there can be a lot of complications and those who are frail may not survive; but Tracie was very fit and at the top of the class in terms of her health.”


KIDNEY FAILURE: THE SIGNS & SYMPTOMS

Tracie was first diagnosed with kidney disease in 2004 after suffering from abdominal pain and an ultrasound revealed several cysts on her kidneys. At that time, doctors told her there wasn’t much she could do other than to monitor the cysts.

But the signs of trouble were there. Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is a hereditary condition that causes cysts in the kidneys. These cysts are filled with fluid, and if too many grow or they get too big, the kidneys become damaged, reducing function and eventually leading to kidney failure. PKD is the fourth leading cause of kidney failure, with about 600,000 people diagnosed in the United States.

Tracie started having serious problems a few years after she began competing as a powerlifter and broke the women’s world record in the bench-pressing category for her weight and age class.

Her performance in competitions began to decrease. She was always cold, and exhausted. Her arms tired from holding the blow dryer to her hair. Her appetite diminished, and she was no longer menstruating. She attributed it to “getting older” and continued to press on through her powerlifting. It wasn’t until 2013 when she went to Hawaii to compete in a state championship that she realized there was something more serious happening. She felt sick and nauseous, and she immediately called her doctor when she returned home. After blood tests, a trip to the emergency room followed by five days in the hospital and a blood transfusion, doctors determined that Tracie’s kidney was hardly functioning anymore and she went on dialysis, three days a week, six hours a day.

“Dialysis drove me nuts. I was tired all the time and felt horrible, and I was still working full time,” she recalls. “Three days out of my week were just gone – I’d leave straight from work, go to dialysis at night, get home, go to sleep for a few hours and then get back up to go to work again. Plus, I was at the gym two or three days a week lifting weights.”

Tracie says some of her doctors told her she shouldn’t be lifting anything over 25 pounds, and while she did cut back on the amount of weights, she refused to give it up entirely. In fact, she even competed in an Iron Warrior competition in May 2014. “It’s the weightlifting that kept me going as long as I did—I was physically and mentally stronger because of it, and I kept pushing myself because I knew I needed that focus in my life,” she says. “It’s what I like, it’s what I do, and it’s who I am.”

LIFE AFTER HER KIDNEY TRANSPLANT
Tracie spent only four days in the hospital after her transplant. She then took time off work as she recovered from surgery and began taking a tailored, around-the-clock immunosuppressive drug therapy of nearly 10 different medications to prevent the body’s immune system from rejecting the new organ. She had her blood drawn every day so that Dr. Ruzics could carefully monitor her kidney function and drug levels to detect any early signs of potential rejection. There were a lot of other precautions she had to take, such as not going out in public areas with large crowds or being around anyone with a cold or other contagious illness.

While the medications, blood draws and doctor visits have decreased and will continue to do so over time – she’s now on four medications, sees the doctor once a month and gets her blood drawn every two weeks – they will never go away entirely, says Dr. Ruzics.

“I just feel like me again, and then my friends at the gym remind me by saying ‘It’s amazing what you went through. You almost died twice, and now you’re back at the gym training.’ But life feels pretty normal now,” she says. “It hasn’t completely sunk in yet, but I don’t go to dialysis anymore and the other night I realized I had time to do normal things like laundry and grocery shopping.”

Tracie wants to help others who suffer from kidney disease. She participates in walks for the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) to raise awareness and funds for research. On May 27, she is working with Metroflex Gym in Long Beach to hold a Bench Press Drive where 20 percent of the entry fees will go to NKF.

TRANSPLANT PROGRAM RANKED AMONG THE BEST

The Kidney Transplant Program at St. Joseph Hospital, Orange has a history of tackling surgical and medical challenges, often accepting patients turned down by other centers. The transplant success and patient survival rates are among the highest in the nation. The program has transplanted more than 1,000 kidneys and ranks as one of the best organ transplant programs in the United States for one-year transplant success rates.

“When I started in this field 30 years ago, one-year transplant success rates were 50 percent – a coin flip, literally. Today, at St. Joseph Hospital, Orange, we have had a 100 percent one-year transplant success rate for the last five years,” says Dr. Ruzics.

The center’s expert team of highly skilled surgeons and staff attribute their outcomes in part to the closely monitored post-transplant care and education.

For all their success, however, programs like St. Joseph Hospital’s depend on kidney donors. More than 119,000 people in the United States are awaiting a life-saving organ transplant, and as the wait list continues to grow, Dr. Ruzics encourages the community to become registered organ donors. Nearly 40 percent of kidney donations nationally are coming from living, rather than deceased donors. For information about becoming a living donor, visit www.transplantliving.org/livingdonation or call the St. Joseph Hospital Kidney Transplant Center living donor coordinator at (714) 771-8033.


Tracie often thinks about the 60-year-old Ohio woman whose kidney she received, and her family. She says the holidays brought mixed emotions as she celebrated her new lease on life but realized there was another family across the country mourning the loss of their loved one.

“I’m here because she’s gone. I’m outside, and I look up at the sunshine and realize I might not be able to do that if it wasn’t for her. It makes me feel bad for her family—to lose someone so sudden and unexpected,” she says. “I’m very grateful though.”

 

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