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Lockport family virtually meets kidney donor from Arizona, reunite with Oak Lawn medical team

“I’m so happy my kidney works for you,” said Joely Sanders, of Arizona, wiping away tears.

Tony Gonzalez, of Lockport, gave her a big smile and thumbs-up as they met virtually Thursday.

Gonzalez received Sanders’ kidney in October after his wife, Tracey, donated one of her kidneys to Sanders’ brother, Frank Pompa.

The two pairs met virtually for the first time at Advocate Christ Medical Center and expressed their shock at the similarities between the two men’s stories.

Gonzalez, 55, was diagnosed with kidney disease caused by high blood pressure two years ago, which required him to go on dialysis, he said. Pompa, 44, was diagnosed in 2019 with end-stage kidney failure with only 10 % kidney function, which also required dialysis.

While both Tracey Gonzalez and Sanders offered to donate a kidney for their respective family members, tests concluded they weren’t a match. But, the United Network for Organ Sharing paired the families.

“You saved my husband’s life,” Tracey Gonzalez said through tears to Sanders. “This program was amazing. I’m so happy to have a future with my husband.”

The pairs laughed at how similar in build, height and weight the two men were, and that they both returned to work this week.

“I’m just really happy that we get to meet you guys,” Sanders said.

Pompa said he was moved to tears when he was told about the “two angels in Illinois” who would ensure he got a kidney. He told Tracey Gonzalez her kidney worked for him “immediately.”

“I’m glad it’s working for you. I tried staying healthy the entire time. I exercised, I ate right,” she said.

Dr. Darshika Chhabra, who was on Gonzalez’s medical team, said kidney donations are most successful when the kidney comes from a live donor. Such transplants for Black and Hispanic patients are more challenging to complete because it is harder to find donors and matches.

Dr. Dan O’Brien, who was also on Gonzalez’s medical team, said the day of the surgery, Oct. 19, was a long day that started with surgery for the donors at 5 a.m.

Then, their kidneys crossed state lines and time zones, via charter planes, to their recipients, O’Brien said. Tony Gonzalez’s surgery didn’t end until about midnight, he said.

O’Brien said a big conversation the medical team had with the Gonzalezes was concerns about a donor backing. Chhabra said they told the pair while that is a small possibility, it very likely won’t happen, particularly in their cases as both donors were saving a family member in the process.

“Donors are a special breed,” Chhabra said.

Toward the end of their meeting, Pompa called Tony “Mr. Gonzalez,” which he swiftly corrected in a friendly way.

“Tony, please. We’re connected now,” Gonzalez said.

Tony and Tracey Gonzalez said once they’re cleared by their doctors they plan to travel to Europe.

Pompa said he looks forward to planning some camping and hunting trips. Sanders said she looks forward to traveling with her husband.

The pairs ended the call with promise of connecting privately later in the day.

“It was exciting to meet them,” Tony Gonzalez said.

akukulka@chicagotribune.com