A Transplant Patient at 12, Now Caring for Kids Like Himself

April 10, 2023

At the age of 12, Dr. Carlos Becerril-Romero's life changed forever with the news that he would need a kidney transplant. He was fortunate that his mother was a match and gave him one of her kidneys. His family traveled from Mexico to Chicago, where the transplant was performed at Lurie Children's. His experiences with excellent, compassionate caregivers in both Mexico and Chicago left him committed to becoming a doctor so he could help children receive the support he had known. Now a Nephrology Fellow at Lurie Children's, he cares for patients who remind him of the child he once was.

My mom would say that I've always wanted to be a doctor. That comes from the fact that I had a wonderful pediatrician who was a great role model for me and that my own experiences made me want to help children facing the same issues I faced.

I was 12 years old when I had appendicitis. An ultrasound to diagnose appendicitis revealed that my kidneys were very small, and blood tests showed that my kidneys were not working. That triggered a cascade of appointments to figure out why my kidneys were small and the next steps we needed to take.  I was living in Mexico, and we were able to come to the United States for a second opinion. We came to Lurie Children's (then Children's Memorial), where doctors confirmed the diagnosis. The medical team at Lurie Children’s was so wonderful. They helped my family with the living donor evaluation process so that I could get a kidney transplant sooner than later and not go through dialysis. My mom got tested to see if she would qualify as a donor, and luckily, she did. On June 15, 2001, she gave me one of her kidneys, which lasted nearly 17 years. She gave me this incredible gift, and I was able to do so much in those 17 years.

My kidney failed when I was in medical school. I'd had a recent check-up, and my doctor thought the kidney was good for another several years. I thought I'd have more time to finish medical school and maybe my pediatric residency. Needing a second transplant was always expected, but learning I needed a new kidney was still shocking. When the kidney failed, I had to start dialysis, which required me to go to an outpatient dialysis center three times a week for four hours to clean my blood. As anyone on dialysis can tell you, it's a rough process for your body but necessary. I spent four years waiting for a new kidney because I could not find a compatible match for a living donor. During my last year of pediatric residency at Riley Children's Hospital in Indianapolis, I finally got the call that a kidney was available for me. 

Being on dialysis means you are tied to a machine. It limits what you can do and the experiences and opportunities you can have. So, transplant is life, and when my patients get a new kidney, I know their lives will change in astonishing ways. I'm not saying a transplant doesn't come with challenges, but the freedom and quality of life you get are worth it. A few weeks ago, one of my patients got a living donor kidney transplant, and I was lucky to be there with the family. Experiences like that let me know I'm in the right field. I know I want to do this for the rest of my life.

I want to become a pediatric transplant medical director in the years ahead. I want to dedicate my life to helping patients waiting for a kidney get a kidney. Despite all advances in medicine, adolescents and young adults struggle the most with episodes of rejection which impact long-term graft survival. I also want to help adolescents and young adults navigate life with a kidney transplant and find and address factors that affect their graft survival. Anything we can do to protect and extend the survival of their kidney transplant will be vital to ensure they maintain a good quality of life.

Here at Lurie Children’s, which has a national reputation for clinical excellence in pediatric nephrology and kidney transplantation, we celebrated our 800th kidney transplant last year. Within our Siragusa Transplantation Center, the transplant program has stellar outcomes, with a three-year patient and organ survival rate at 100 percent.

We need to do more to educate people about being living donors. Living donation is safe. There are thousands of children waiting for a kidney. Increasing the number of living donors will help us get our children closer to a transplant, have better health outcomes, and improve their quality of life.  I encourage people to register to become organ donors. We ensure that our donors are appropriate for a donation from a mental and physical health standpoint. Anyone interested in being a living donor should have an open discussion with their doctor or a transplant center.

The best example I can give you is my mother, who gave me one of her kidneys more than 20 years ago. All these years later, she's doing well. She gave me this extraordinary gift many years ago, and I hope to make her proud.

This blog post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Becerril-Romero from the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois.

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