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Giving the gift of good health: Longtime SA friends undergo life-saving organ swap

Karen Crane and Crystal Villarreal participated in a paired kidney transplant procedure Friday morning.

SAN ANTONIO — As many shop for the perfect gift this holiday season, one woman is giving her friend a second shot at life.

Karen Crane and Crystal Villarreal have worked together at the Pediatric Ear, Nose & Throat Institute of South Texas, an affiliate of Pediatrix Medical Group for nearly seven years. From participating in each other’s weddings to celebrating other life milestones, the pair added another life event to their years of friendship Friday, when they participated in a paired kidney donation, which connected Villarreal, who lives with polycystic kidney disease, to a compatible donor.

“Swapping out kidneys from one body to another,” Crane joked.

Villarreal said doctors estimated in July that it would likely be years before it would come to needing a kidney transplant, but the estimate changed when Villarreal was diagnosed with end stage kidney failure. The disease, which is hereditary, is no stranger to Villarreal’s family. Of her nine aunts and uncles, eight have undergone kidney transplants.

Crane said she told Villarreal early on she would try to be a donor. But after undergoing tests, Crane learned she was incompatible. The pair was placed in a pool, waiting for a recipient in the same predicament with whom Crane was compatible and a donor with whom Villarreal was compatible.

Villarreal got the news that they had identified another pair of people to participate in the swap and had initially planned to undergo transplant surgery in January. But doctors told her that if she wanted to forego dialysis, they would need to move up the surgery.

Crane, mere weeks after a November wedding, cancelled her honeymoon to avoid exposure to the novel coronavirus and underwent surgery at Methodist Transplant Hospital on Friday morning.

"I was preparing myself for having to do dialysis and having to change my whole life schedule to be able to accommodate being stuck at the dialysis center three times a week and missing out on stuff with my kids,” Villarreal said.

She described the surgery as more than just an organ transplant, but a “whole new life.”

"There's just no way to describe it. There isn’t,” Villarreal said of Crane’s decision to be a living kidney donor. "And to be given a gift like that, it's priceless. It really is.”

The mother of two said the disease is draining, often requiring her to take a nap after work before she can handle any other chores. Now, she said she will be able to live life more fully.

Crane said that, apart from the kidney, she will still get Villarreal a Christmas gift.