AURORA, Colo. — If the last two years have taught us anything, it's that nothing is stronger than human connection.
It's what brought two strangers together in Colorado for a rare, life-saving operation. Now, eight weeks removed from the surgery, they're reflecting on how the stars aligned.
Kendra Pearson says she has a new lease on life after a recurring liver disease plagued her for years.
"I just didn't have any energy," Pearson said. "I kept getting infections in my bile ducts. So, it just makes you really really sick. Like, I'd run fevers that were uncontrollable."
She had a previous liver transplant, and now needed another. But her lab results were not placing her high on the recipient list.
"I wasn't sure how much longer I had," Pearson said. "I maybe had a year left."
So, the wife and mother of two from Pueblo turned to social media with her story. Four months later, officials at UCHealth informed her that a stranger had come through as a living donor.
"I actually didn't know until February 3," Pearson said. "They called me and told me I had a match. And, I was just in tears because I didn't even know anyone was testing."
Ray Espinoza, a husband and father of two from Southern California, was excited to learn he was Kendra's match.
"You know, I think that if I were in a position where my wife, or me, or anybody needed a transplant, that I really hope that someone would be willing to do just this," Espinoza said.
He had to leave his kids and pregnant wife for a month for the surgery and recovery in Colorado. He sacrificed more than 50 percent of his healthy liver for someone he had never met. And, it's a decision he couldn't have made without his wife's support.
"If there was any hesitation on her part, I don't think I would've been able to do it," Espinoza said. "You know, I would've felt guilty on my end. But, when I brought that up, she said, "Alright, let's do it.""
UCHealth has the longest running liver transplant program in the world, dating back to 1967. Dr. James Pomposelli performed the complicated surgery.
"Any re-transplant situation is more difficult because of the previous scarring tissue and things like that," said Dr. Pomposelli. "So, the operative mortality is significantly higher with a re-transplant. So, it's a higher risk procedure to begin with."
But thankfully, it was successful. And Kendra and Ray finally got to meet for the first time at a follow-up appointment.
"He's wonderful," she said. "Absolutely the most wonderful person I've ever met. It was the most wonderful experience ever. I was really nervous, but I got to meet him and his wife."
Now, they're bonded for life and sharing their perspectives on both sides of living organ donation.
"I don't even have the words for what he did for me," said Pearson. "It's just the most wonderful gift you could ever give somebody. You know, I have two teenagers, and it's been really rough on me. I was really afraid I wasn't going to see either of my kids graduate high school, get married some day. So, for him to give me this gift, it's not only a gift to me but my children, as well."
"I feel like I got just as much out of this experience as she did," said Espinoza. "Because it's really helped me to reprioritze and see what's important in my life."
"I live in the moment a lot more than I did before," said Pearson. "Everyday I thank him, but it will never be enough."
Kendra and Ray both say they feel great eight weeks into their recovery. The liver is a regenerating organ, so in time, they should be able to live a normal life. Kendra's goal is to go running with her daughter again.