GREENE: On mothers and missing pieces

Amelia Martinez with her husband, Chris, and two children. (Photo courtesy of Martinez family))
Amelia Martinez with her husband, Chris, and two children. (Photo courtesy of Martinez family)

Amelia Martinez is in desperate need of a kidney.

The 31-year-old mother of two from Lakewood has known this day would come since she was diagnosed at 14 with a disease that by then had slashed her kidney function to 30 percent. She remembers the doctor saying she had only nine months before she’d need a transplant, and how her mom burst into tears.

“I thought I was dying,” says Amelia, whose kidneys have held out far longer than expected, but are now functioning at only 18 percent.

She didn’t ask for this column. Nor would she have.

Amelia figures she lucked out enough for one lifetime when, having been abandoned by her birth mother as a baby in Medellin, Colombia, she was adopted by a couple from Boulder, Colorado. Her mom, Rochelle Ravishankara, is an emergency room physician. Her dad, A. R. “Ravi” Ravishankara, is a chemist and atmospheric scientist whose research helped expose the chemical causes of ozone depletion and climate change. Her brother, Isaac, is big-shot music video director in LA.

But luck can be a mixed bag.

Amelia carried from Colombia the wounds of abandonment and the shame of feeling different from her new family, not as light-skinned or book-smart or accomplished. Her parents showered her with love and made sure she had the best counseling and kidney treatment available. But she still felt broken, incomplete, “like there were pieces, big pieces, missing inside me.” 

For a long stretch in her teens and early 20s, she was convinced she’d never find them.

Amelia Martinez and her mother, Rochelle Ravishankara
Amelia Martinez and her mother, Rochelle Ravishankara (Photo courtesy of family)

“When I moved out of my parents’ place and my mom wasn’t standing right there literally pushing my medication every day, I stopped taking it. I didn’t care if I was alive. I guess I checked out for a long time.”

Her heartache about that period and her mom’s are thick and palpable as they sit at Amelia’s kitchen table remembering it a decade later.

“Loving a child isn’t always enough to heal them,” says Rochelle who, after 35 years of patching people up as an ER doc, knows a thing or two about healing.

I met Rochelle 10 years ago in the emergency room of St. Joseph Hospital. I was crashing from pneumonia that had gone septic, and remember her yelling “41-year-old mother of two” to her colleagues with extra urgency before everything went dark. I remember waking the next day in intensive care to the smile of the stranger who’d saved my life. Rochelle sat with me on her breaks for several days after asking about my kids and telling me about hers. That’s when Amelia was in the thick of it, and her kidney disease – as bad as it was – wasn’t the worst of her problems.

Rochelle said then, as she does now: “It’s painful as a mother when you can’t fill in those missing pieces.”

It was a few years later that Amelia started filling them in herself when she took a job as a healthcare tech at the Denver jail and befriended a sheriff’s deputy with a baby daughter. She felt drawn toward Chris Martinez and his Ariana, who’s now 8. And in that pull, she realized being part of their lives meant needing to show up for her own.

Amelia Martinez cuddles with her two daughters. (Photo courtesy of family)
Amelia Martinez cuddles with her two daughters. (Photo courtesy of family)

She has been doing so since she married Chris and became Ariana’s stepmother in 2013. The couple now has a second daughter, Marina, who’s 3.

It is clear, watching Amelia laugh and cry with her parents and husband around her kitchen table, and watching her beam at her girls as they skip in and out of the room between games of tag, that shame no longer has the best of her. That space is now occupied with meaning.

“The most important thing to me is being a mother. And I need to be healthy to do that,” she says. “It’s a new thing for me to think about my future and want to be here for it. I just want to be here for my family.”

Amelia has all the signs of kidney failure. Her energy is low and creatinine levels high. It takes all of her, plus some, to make it through her shifts as a hair stylist and take care of her girls. She wakes most mornings feeling like she has run a marathon.

She needs a kidney from a B or O blood-type donor – preferably a living one because the chances of success would be higher. And she needs it urgently.

Rochelle, who is type-O, had planned to be the donor, but doctors tested and disqualified her. A close family friend stepped up as a plan B, only to be ruled out as well. Another family friend offered herself, but that plan, too, fell through in April when minor kidney stones turned up in her tests.

Weeks ago, a call came in the middle of the night from Presbyterian/St. Luke Medical Center saying a girl had died in a car crash and that Amelia was high enough on the transplant list to qualify for immediate surgery if a patient ahead of her took a pass. But a follow-up call never came. And now, whenever Amelia passes by a car accident or hears sirens in the distance, she wonders if her phone will ring.

It’s haunting, she says, to wait like this, counting on someone else’s tragedy. And it haunts her even more knowing that others above and below her on the transplant list are banking on the same desperate calculation. That knowledge, she says, makes the act of asking for a kidney that much harder.

“It’s not like my life is more important than somebody else’s.”

Rochelle doesn’t share a reluctance to ask for what her daughter needs.

“I feel like she’s had enough, more than enough, to deal with in her life. And I feel like it’s my mission to find her a donor,” she says.

“I have saved lives. Ravi is trying to save the planet…,” she continues.

“And, yeah, I’ve cut people down,” Chris adds about inmates he has prevented from hanging themselves in Denver’s jail.

Amelia and her mom (Photo courtesy of family)
Amelia and her mom (Photo courtesy of family)

These are the expressions of a family’s desperation, karmic chits called in from the universe when love and devotion collide with powerlessness.

If Rochelle could pay a willing donor, or if she could post an ad or yell from the balcony of her apartment asking for a kidney for Amelia, she would in a heartbeat. “Any mother would,” she says.

But, appropriately, there are medical laws and ethics policies and all manner of safeguards in place to prevent the buying and selling of organs, or anything that might approximate it. As Rochelle is learning all too painfully, having saved the lives of strangers doesn’t come with reciprocity.

I cannot, as a journalist, save anyone’s life. But I can offer a bullhorn to the woman who saved mine.

And so I write in hopes of reaching someone, anyone with a B or O blood-type and a healthy kidney, a perfect stranger willing to give a mother of two a second chance and the mom who raised her the comfort of knowing she has found this last missing piece.

12 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for using the bullhorn on behalf of a young family.

    But there really should be a better way. Driving more people to sign up as organ donors has been a long-suggested solution, meaning accidents and other sudden deaths would more likely result in usable organs helping address the need. One recent article said “while 95 percent of U.S. adults support organ donation, only 54 percent are actual registered donors.” That level allowed a bit over 10,000 donors, and each donor can save multiple people awaiting organs.

    Approximately 7,000 living donations were made last year. I’m not certain what would drive that number up — but stories such as this one certainly must help.

  2. Susan, I’m crying as I read this because someone I’m related to by marriage just received a kidney. As a mother of two and grandmother of two, I understand the love a mother has for her child. Can you tell me how old a doner has to be?

  3. The minimum age is 18; there is technically no maximum age and it’s based on the individual circumstances.In my daughter’s case, they would like us to find someone 55 or younger as she is only 31. Thank you so much Susie for writing this, and thank you all for reading it.

  4. For anyone who is interested in learning more about this, the contact information is:
    Donor Coordinator at Presbyterian /St. Luke’s:
    (720) 754-2164, or
    Website:
    http://www.pslmc.com/signmeup
    Amelia’s full name: Amelia Martinez
    Amelia’s DOB: 6/20/1987
    All medical expenses will be covered by Amelia’s insurance.
    All non-medical expenses will be covered by her family.

  5. One doesn’t HAVE to be a match – one can be an anonymous donor. Maybe you — as I did, easily and just over 55 — donate your kidney to a stranger, let’s call her Maria. A willing donor of Maria’s, who is not a match with her, then donates a kidney to a stranger too. It creates a pair (or trade). Maybe that pair can include Amelia if she has a donor who is not a match with her. Look it up, National Kidney Registry or the transplant center at CU-Anschutz can help. I’m not explaining this well but you get the idea. I can’t express how easy this is for a healthy person who can afford to miss work for a week (or work at home part-time) during recovery. All expenses paid, a got several full health workups that I would never have afforded on my own, there are many benefits — along with the joy of helping to save someone’s life.

  6. If you call you the Donor Coordinator at Presbyterian /St. Luke’s:
    (720) 754-2164, she can arrange for you to get tested- ie, blood-typed.

  7. Susan, good on YOU. This may be a wrong idea but could you pass this on to 9 news? Then it would get wider attention. I don’t know the legalities of this but it’s urgent news and they might cover it.

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