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Two USD nursing graduates work to save their patients' lives, now a kidney transplant saves their friendship

Jose Gonzales needed a kidney transplant but hesitated asking his family and friends because he didn't want anyone to worry about his health.

SAN DIEGO — Two University of San Diego nursing graduates who have spent a lot of time together studying for their doctorate degree will now spend the rest of their lives together.

Joe Gonzales has followed in Amanda Cuellar's footsteps throughout their nursing careers. 

“I was working as a nurse's assistant and Amanda was a registered nurse,” said Gonzales.

That was 20 years ago in Imperial County where they still work.

“He's literally watched my kids grow up since they were little,” said Cuellar.

In 2020, during Gonzales’ annual wellness check, blood work and additional testing showed he had scarring on his kidneys known as the autoimmune disease focal segmental glomerulosclerosis or FSGS.

“It was kind of, it was a lot to take in,” said Gonzales.

Gonzales and Cuellar had already been accepted into USD’s Hanh School of Nursing and Health Services Doctor of Nursing Practices program but she didn't want to do it without him.

“‘I'll wait for you. I'm not going to go ahead and do it without you. We said we were going to do it together,’” said Cuellar.

They stayed committed to taking that first step together but what Cuellar didn't know was that Gonzales needed a kidney transplant.

“I didn't want to worry anybody. And I didn't want other questions because I didn't have the answers,” said Gonzales.

Gonzales' doctor encouraged him to ask family and friends if they would be a match or risk waiting ten years while on the transplant list.

“It's not like I'm asking to borrow like milk or sugar. I'm asking for someone's organ. And I just don't know how to do it,” said Gonzales.

He hesitated but eventually asked a handful of family and friends. His younger niece and Cuellar were matches.

“I just knew I don't know why I had this feeling that I was going to be a match. I was like this is why he wanted to be my friend 20 years ago because he was going to need my kidney eventually one day,” said Cuellar.

The 46-year-old had to meet certain health criteria before she could donate her kidney. All the while Gonzales was getting worse.

“Just watching him, the swelling and his face looked different. And it was just, it was, it was hard to watch,” said Cuellar.

She never doubted donating her kidney and her family supported her decision.

“I felt so sick that I couldn't imagine, I couldn't imagine feeling better again,” said Gonzales.

On March 7, Gonzales said that pain was gone, he felt like he could run a marathon. The 39-year-old had Cuellar's kidney.

“I walked in he was like, ‘Hey, good morning.’ Like, oh, thank God he’s better,’” said Cuellar.

Now, they will be walking together when they graduate this weekend from USD’s Hahn School of Nursing and Health Services with a Doctor of Nursing Practices degree.

“There's no words to ever let her know how grateful I am for her,” said Gonzales.

The two hope their story encourages patients to see a doctor once a year for a wellness check.

“We come from an underserved community, primarily Hispanic. And in the Hispanic culture, we don't go to the doctor that often it just it's a fact, you don't go do that,” said Gonzales.

He says early detection is what can save lives.

WATCH RELATED: How a stomachache turned into a heart transplant at Rady Children's Hospital (March 2023).


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