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.
“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.
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.
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.