The Greatest Gift
06/13/2005 at 01:00 AM EDT
The medical crisis that made George Lopez a candidate for a kidney transplant can be traced all the way back to his childhood. The ABC sitcom star was born 44 years ago with narrow ureters, a defect that resulted in urine backing up into his kidneys. "What stands out as a kid is how many times I had to go to the bathroom and how often I held it in," says Lopez. "That built up scar tissue in the ureters and restricted the flow even more. I also wet the bed a lot. By my late 30s, my kidneys were almost shut down." About seven years ago, Lopez learned that he would need a transplant. An only child raised by his grandparents, Lopez had no blood relatives to turn to as potential donors, which meant he'd have to go on a kidney waiting list-joining some 60,000 other Americans-or else find a friend willing to donate one of theirs.
Yet none of Lopez's friends knew of his medical condition, a secret he and his wife of 12 years, Ann, 44, a TV producer, shared only with his manager, Ron DeBlasio. Last winter Lopez found his donor-Ann herself (Thanks to immuno-suppressive drugs, it isn't necessary to be a blood relative to donate a kidney.) "It was something I wanted to do because I couldn't live without him, "she says. The couple, who have a daughter, Mayan, 9, underwent their dual operations on April 19 in Los Angeles. Now, almost two months later, donor and donee both say they're feeling fine. Both were wearing "Donate Life" bracelets as they sat in their sprawling, Spanish-style L.A. home to talk about their experience with PEOPLE's Tom Cunneff.
George: I had this dull pain in my lower stomach, so I went to the doctor. They drew blood and that's when they discovered my problem. They opened up my ureters with stents to increase the flow, but the damage had been done. The doctor said, "You've got kidney disease. You're going to need a transplant by the time you're 45." Ann was with me and she goes, "I'll give you one of mine."
Ann: I know it sounds karmic and bizarre, but I just knew I would be the donor. So for the next six years, I didn't really worry about it. I worried that he was getting more ill.
George: The last few years have been very difficult. I was just tired. Your metabolism isn't working. Your blood's not filtering right and it makes your head not clear. I went to bed before my daughter at 7 o'clock. I'd get up to go to the bathroom eight or nine times. It was awful. I'd wake up the next day and I wasn't refreshed. The second day of rehearsal this past season, I came home and said to Ann, "I'm not going to make it." That was August and we're talking about going to the end of March. It was the longest year ever.
Ann: Last fall our specialist said, "it's time." his kidneys were functioning at 18 percent. At 15 percent you have to go on dialysis. So I started to be tested in October 2004. But it's a long process (see box). We found out I was a match in February. If I wasn't a match, we probably would have gone public, but we wanted to keep it private. The biggest reason was because of our daughter. We were told to tell her just a couple of days before the surgery, because kids start to worry. It's two parents going under the knife. I said very simply, "Daddy has two bad kidneys. Mommy's got two good kidneys. You only need one kidney. I'm going to give Daddy a kidney." She was like, "Okay." She handled it pretty well.
George: Knowing Ann was going to be my donor just took this weight off. Now I could focus on getting to April. I told her if this was reversed, I would absolutely do the same thing for her and she said, "I know."
Ann: I wanted to get in better physical condition for the surgery so I started working out with a trainer three days a week and went to a nutritionist and dropped 20 pounds.
George: The morning of the surgery, Ann gave me a card and a rosary and I was tearing up.
Ann: I gave him a card that told him I was donating my kidney to him. I wanted him to know that this decision was completely out of love.
Before they left home, the couple took a picture of themselves.
George: I wanted a record of me at my worst.
Ann: We drove ourselves to Cedars-Sinai hospital at 5:30 a.m.
George: I checked in under the name of Tom Ace, which comes from Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.
Ann: It's our daughter's favorite movie. I was Ann Ace.
George: While I was waiting to go into surgery, a woman came in and said, "I think it's great what your wife is doing." And I tried to be funny. I said, "If you saw the kind of lifestyle she lives, an organ is the least she can give me." That didn't go over too well. I said, "I'm kidding. I'm a comedian. Plus, I'm a comedian who's really scared. That's when the jokes come out."
Ann: When they were about 45 minutes away from harvesting my kidney, that's when they took George in. My surgery took about two to three hours and George's took about five. The operation was easier than giving birth. I have a four-inch scar above my belly button and three little scars on my left side where they went in arthroscopically. We couldn't share a room because he had to be in the kidney ward. I was in another wing and on another floor, so it was quite a distance.
George: I remember I was in a very nice place. I think I was dreaming about Hawaii, because we had just been there. I remember someone screaming at me, "Mr. Ace! Tom! Tom Ace! Wake up!" I'm like, "Who is this guy?" And it was me. In the recovery room. I was hammered that night and in severe pain. The next day wasn't so bad, but that first Tuesday was probably the most pain I've ever been in.
Ann: We talked on the phone, which was great. We just said, "We're on the other side. We did it. I love you." We were in pain, but we were relieved.
George: One of the first calls I got when I got home from the hospital was from Clint Eastwood. He said, "Hey, George, I didn't know you were married to your sister."
Ann: Some people we were close to we wanted to tell them the day before. We didn't want them to hear about it in the news. We told Clint, Carlos Santana, Cheech Marin, Andy Garcia, Rip Taylor, old friends.
George: In the first month after the transplant, I felt better than I did in my whole life. Everything is fun now. It's not a labor.
Ann: I feel great, but I'm a little tired. When you take one kidney, the remaining kidney goes, "Oh, I have to do 100 percent of the work," and that takes about six to eight weeks. So I have to pace myself.
George: I have a total change of life. I'm done drinking alcohol and I maybe done smoking cigars, which I love. I'm not going to abuse my body. For the first time in my life, because of Ann, I'm going to live the healthy life that I should have been living. Whatever happens to me professionally and wherever my golf swing goes, nothing is more important than the fact that my wife gave me a chance to live. I can't pay her back, but what I can do is make her as happy as she thought I would when we first got married.
Ann: You don't have to pay something back done out of love.
George: Somebody said to me, "God, you have to be really nice to your wife now that she's given you a kidney." [He laughs.] And I said, "Not as nice as I had to be before she gave me the kidney."