Tejano star Delia tells how fan and 3-way kidney exchange saved her life

Delia Silvas never had what anyone would call a normal life. The life of a Tejano star touring the U.S. and Mexico on stage before hundreds of fans is anything but every day.

Even as she smiled and sang her heart out as Delia Gonzales of Delia y Culturas in energetic performances, her kidneys were rebelling.

The singer was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease in 1996, but kept the condition from her fans. Even when her kidneys began to fail years later, she kept it quiet, ending each day exhausted partly from the chemotherapy used to treat the effects of her disease.

“I didn’t want to talk about it,” Silvas said. “I didn’t want anybody to know.”

Eventually, her kidney function dropped off again and she was told to mentally prepare for dialysis. She kept it at bay for 15 months, but when she reached 16 percent kidney function it was time to give in to the time-consuming regimen.
A fan, Emma Martinez, who became friends with Silvas and her husband, was part of the inner circle that knew about the condition and was one of more than 20 tested for the ability to donate a kidney. She wasn’t a match to Delia, but was a good candidate for kidney donation.

Nearly seven months after dialysis began, they found out about a fairly new program at Texas Transplant Institute at Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital. Although Emma wasn’t a match for her friend, she was a match for someone else with a volunteer donor of their own.

On July 11, 2008, Delia and Emma became part of the first three-way live donor swap in Texas. Three donors gave kidneys to people they didn’t know so that a friend or family member could get a kidney they so desperately needed.
Since then, that landmark surgery has saved more than 40 lives in two- and three-way swaps for people in Texas and as far away as Alabama.

You can hear from Dr. Adam Bingaman, the doctor behind this life-changing procedure, in his video interview. “We give hope to people who had previously had their hope taken away,” Bingaman says. “That’s the goal of our program, and we work hard every day to try and get more of these done. And I’m hopeful the program will continue to expand and continue to reach more people from surrounding states and around the country so that more people can benefit from receiving the true gift of life.”

Last fall, Delia Gonzales Silvas was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame and presented one of the awards alongside her donor. A short video documenting their relationship and the transplant shown at the ceremony was greeted with a standing ovation.

Even before the transplant, Silvas was pursuing a dream she’d had even before the Crystal City native found Tejano stardom: to be a nurse. Even through dialysis, she was studying for her associate’s degree in applied sciences at Northwest Vista College and did make up exams when her summer finals came two weeks after the kidney transplant. “I never took a semester off,” she said.

She finishes her first degree this semester and has applied for bachelor degree nursing programs in San Antonio. She still is struggling with the words to the song she wants to write about her transforming transplant experience and friendship with Emma Martinez, but she is clear on her future direction: in a few years, the singer will turn to doing her part in ministering to transplant patients in San Antonio as a transplant nurse.

— Travis E. Poling

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