Kidney transplant survivors find love and new lives together
Even before they officially exchange “I do’s” in front of God and man, Dr. Normand Calimquim and Arlen Quieta have long fulfilled the vow to be together in sickness and in health. For when these two fated people fell in love, they were both suffering a difficult disease, which they overcame together and ultimately brought them closer.
Both kidney transplant survivors, Calimquim and Quieta have happily regained normal lives despite having been chronic kidney disease (CKD) patients. CKD is a condition in which the body’s kidneys lose their capability to perform renal functions.
When this happens, bodily wastes and excess fluids are no longer filtered and excreted in the urine, and instead builds up in the body risking infection. CKD can progress to end-stage kidney failure, which is fatal if artificial filtering (dialysis) is not administered regularly or a kidney transplant is performed. (mayoclinic.org)
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Times Magazine, Calimquim and Quieta, now engaged, prove how they are able to live and love despite the significant changes their surgeries have made in their lives.
The aspiring doctor
Calimquim, a medical doctor of three years, discovered he had CKD in a most unfortunate time in his career. The year was 2006 when he had just graduated Medicine from the Saint Louis University in Baguio City.
In the middle of his internship and just months before the Physician Licensure Examination, the aspiring doctor discovered he had CKD, and worse, his disease was already diagnosed to be in the fifth and final stage.
With his future uncertain, he still persuaded his doctor to allow him to take his licensure exam after years of hard work in Medicine before beginning dialysis.
“With the consent of my doctor, I took the exam. Pero wala na akong review noon dahil six weeks lang ang naibigay sa aking panahon. Ang dami ring tumatakbo sa isip ko, financially and emotionally [But I wasn’t able to review anymore because I was only given six weeks to do so, and there were so many things I had to deal with financially and emotionally],” Dr. Calimquim recalled.
Nevertheless, without much preparation, he proved he had what it takes to be a doctor when he passed the two-weekend examinations against all odds.
His happiness was short-lived, however, because after the good news, came the bad. He could no longer escape the grueling dialysis treatments, which required him to move to Manila, and for the next three years, go back and forth to the Philippine Kidney Dialysis Foundation to be strapped to a machine that filtered his blood for hours at a time.
Asked what he felt during those days, the Pangasinan native related, “Bed-ridden na ako. ‘Yong dalawang kidneys ko, parehong sira na. Ang katawan ko, nangingitim na. Pero higit don, naiinggit ako sa mga kasabayan kong naging doktor na. Pakiramdam ko, lahat ng pangarap ko nawala ng lahat. [I was already bed-ridden. My two kidneys were both shot so that my body was already turning grey. But more than that, I envied my batch mates who were already practicing as doctors. I felt all my dreams had vanished].”
Finally in March 2010, after a long search for a relative kidney donor, Dr. Calimquim underwent a complicated but successful transplant operation at the National Kidney Transplant Institute (NKTI).
The OFW returns
Quieta had been an overseas Filipina worker (OFW) in Dubai since 2005. However in 2009, she suddenly returned to the Philippines. Sadly, it wasn’t for a grand homecoming; she had to have her CKD treated.
She recalled, “Itong sakit na ito traydor. Akala ko tumaas lang ang grado ng mata ko kaya nagpatingin ako sa ENT ko. Noong nandun na, nalaman na mataas na ang BP [blood pressure]ko. [This disease is a traitor. I thought I only had eye problems but when I had a check up with my ENT, they found out my BP was high and that it was more than just bad eyesight].”
She was instructed to take many laboratory exams, which revealed that her createnine level was high—a major indicator of CKD, and she was diagnosed as Stage 3.
In June of the same year, she used her annual vacation to have a second opinion in the Philippines. But her fear was only confirmed, as the findings in Dubai were accurate. She needed to undergo dialysis immediately.
“Sabi ko sa sarili ko, bakit ako pa ang nagkaroon ng ganitong sakit eh hindi naman ako naging pabaya sa katawan ko. Wala akong bisyo [I told myself, why was I afflicted with this disease when I took good care of my health and never had vices].”
With no choice but to accept her fate, the OFW returned home for good in September 2009. The following month, she began dialysis that lasted for 10 months.
Fortunately for Quieta, one of her siblings generously offered to be her kidney donor after establishing compatibility. After completing the required procedures at NKTI, she underwent a successful kidney transplant in October 2010.
Understanding the disease
“Walang pinipili itong sakit na ito, mayaman man o mahirap [This disease doesn’t choose its victim whether rich or poor].”
That was the brief but precise response of Dr. Calimquim when asked who is at risk for CKD. He recalled how during his worst stages, he used to hear comments why even he, a doctor, was inflicted with the disease.
Going on to discuss details of a transplant, the doctor said that a CKD patient’s kidneys need not be removed from the body to prepare for the new one because they just shrink inside the body without hindering the functions of other internal organs.
Taking over from her fiancé, Quieta related that the most critical part of a transplant is when the body identifies the new kidney as a foreign body and therefore “fight to kill it.” Thus, kidney transplant patients need to take immunosuppressants, or anti-rejection drugs, just before the operation and throughout their lives.
“The post-transplant phase is the most dangerous for us because once anti-bodies are suppressed, immunity weakens. Kidney transplant survivors are therefore vulnerable to infections and diseases,” she elaborated.
Thus, following the emotional and physical difficulties a patient needs to endure, the financial aspect from dialysis to post-operation and medication can also prove to be a huge challenge.
“CDK is a lifetime condition. [Anti-rejection] medication is also a lifetime requirement,” Dr. Calimquim added.
To protect themselves from infection, survivors like them always need to hide behind medical masks to avoid contracting even the common cold from others.
Behind the masks
As fate would have it, Dr. Calimquim’s and Quieta’s kidney transplant procedures happened at NKTI in 2010 with just months in between. However, it would take another two years before the two finally had the chance to meet each other.
In the Philippines, there exists a Kidney Transplant Association of the Philippines (KITAP), a non-profit organization that invites CKD patients and survivors to interact as one community and help each other through the lifetime condition.
Naturally, both Dr. Calimquim and Quieta joined the group but had their own set of friends.
Destiny soon steeped in. “May mga kaibigan akong nagsabi na bagay daw ako kay Arlen. Hindi ko alam ang mukha niya, pero meron na akong nasusulyapang babae sa KITAP [Some friends told me I’d get along well with this girl named Arlen. I don’t know what she looks like but then I’d already been secretly eyeing a lady in KITAP],” the doctor recalled with a sheepish smile.
It turned out that the lady Calimquim’s friends had in mind for him was the same lady he fancied. Moreover, Queita’s friends also planned to set up the “doctor-patient” for her.
Finally, after much encouragement, the two were finally introduced to each other. And even if they were both wearing medical masks, Dr. Calimquim said it was love at first sight.
“Kahit na naka-medical mask siya, na-in love pa rin ako sa kanya. Nagustuhan ko talaga ang mga mata niya. [Even if she had a medical mask on, I still fell in love with her. I liked her eyes so much],” the doctor shared.
Quieta, on the other, hand fell in love Calimquim’s sense of humor, which was just like hers.
In 2012 they officially became a couple and the following year, Calimquim followed Quieta to her hometown in Bohol to propose. Of course, the lady in love said yes.
Calimquim believes that two CKD patients being together is not a disadvantage but rather an advantage. “Dahil alam namin ang needs ng isa’t isa, mas madali naming naiintindihan ang isa’t isa [Because we have the same needs, we understand each other better],” he said.
Living and loving
Today, the engaged couple is in the thick of preparing their church wedding in 2016. And happily, they are both functioning well in society.
“We are living our second lives. Hindi hadlang ang karamdaman namin para mabuhay at magmahal. [Our condition do not hinder us to live and love],” Quieta waxed poetic.
Dr. Calimquim, for example, still manages to practice his profession even if not full-time to make sure he is not tired out. He is currently practicing at a clinic owned by his university batch-mate in his hometown in Pangasinan. He is also a hospital reliever at the George Dewey Hospital in Subic. (See sidebar)
As for Quieta, she has made it her mission to prove that CKD patients and survivors can live normal lives as an active member and internal vice president of KITAP.
“At KITAP, we hold annual gatherings, forums and even games for our members,” she enthused.
Moreover, the NGO also spreads awareness about CKD since they noticed that the number of those afflicted with the kidney disease is rising among Filipinos.
“Sana hindi na nadadagdagan ang mga kaso dahil isa itong burden hindi lang para sa sarili kundi para sa pamilya. [I hope cases do not increase further because this is not just a burden to one’s self but also to one’s family],” Quieta expressed.
With this, the couple reminds the public to lead a healthy lifestyle, and always eat and drink in moderation to avoid developing CKD. And for kidney transplant patients like them, the couple’s message is hope for a life fulfilled and overflowing with love just like theirs.