Jennifer Longoria was once told by her doctor that she was "a walking miracle who should be curled up dead." Given the symptoms she had experienced as a college student, when nearly every morning she felt so sick it was agony to get out of bed, she felt strangely vindicated to hear that news.
Jennifer was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, a condition that causes inflammation in the kidneys, which in turn hampers the body's ability to filter waste from the blood. At the time of her diagnosis, Jennifer's kidneys were functioning at only 7 percent. She was just 21 years old.
Asked by a doctor in their hometown of El Paso, Texas, how Jennifer still managed to function, her mother and devoted caregiver, Valerie Edmiston, replied, "Obviously you don't know my daughter's strength and perseverance."
Jennifer needed that strength, because the road to a kidney transplant was her only hope for survival — and Jennifer would be on that road for more than a decade. Eventually, though, a kidney transplant at Mayo Clinic would release Jennifer from years of dialysis, surgeries and exhaustion, and free her to enjoy a life of renewed health.
Jennifer's journey to a transplant was fraught with setbacks and complications. Valerie remembers every bump and pothole.
"Jennifer's hair fell out by the handfuls," Valerie says. "She would sleep for days."
Jennifer's biggest scare came the night when the peritoneal catheter in her stomach broke, making it impossible for her to receive her dialysis medication. The cause was peritonitis, an inflammation of the abdominal wall often triggered by an infection or a rupture. That frightening event caused Jennifer to be off dialysis for a week, which alarmed Valerie to the point where she told doctors she thought her daughter was dying. Jennifer went back on dialysis.
All agreed it was time for Jennifer to seriously begin the process of moving toward a kidney transplant. Because patients can be listed for transplantation at more than one medical center, Jennifer and Valerie contacted hospitals in Miami and Houston. Their experience was disappointing. She was on the transplant waiting list for 12 years in Miami and nine years in Houston.
"It wasn't good," Jennifer says. "I was treated like a paycheck and a number."
Jennifer continued to receive home dialysis in El Paso — 10 hours at night and two more sessions during the day. That commitment meant Jennifer had no time for friends or a full-time job. In all, Jennifer was on dialysis for more than 13 years.
Then in 2016, someone at her dialysis center approached Jennifer and asked, "Why don't you contact Mayo Clinic about getting a kidney transplant?" Neither Jennifer nor Valerie had been aware of that option, and Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus was only a seven-hour drive from El Paso.
Jennifer called Mayo Clinic in May and an appointment for her transplant evaluation was set for August. But Jennifer's medical complications escalated while she waited in El Paso. This time it was Jennifer who said, "Mom, I'm dying. My heart hurts." Jennifer was hospitalized for two weeks with a severe lung infection. Despite the new health challenge, Jennifer and Valerie were determined to make it to Mayo Clinic for her evaluation. The pair even drove through a blinding rain and lightning storm from El Paso to Phoenix to get to Mayo Clinic Hospital.
Less than a week later, while at Mayo Clinic, Jennifer announced, "Everything is spinning!" Quickly placed in a wheelchair, Jennifer promptly went into cardiac arrest. She was rushed to the Emergency Department, where she learned that she needed a pacemaker implanted immediately.
Although terrified, Jennifer persevered while the pacemaker was implanted, thanks to nurses holding her hand and encouraging her. Jennifer calls that "the first time that Mayo Clinic saved my life." Two more chances for Mayo Clinic to save her life were still to come.
Two months later, during a pacemaker checkup, Jennifer's care team found that her dialysis had stopped working because she had developed pericarditis — inflammation of the tissue surrounding her heart. She was hospitalized at Mayo Clinic Hospital for two weeks.
"That was the second time Mayo saved my life," Jennifer says. Valerie adds, “What a blessing Mayo is.”
Back home again, the call Jennifer and Valerie had been anticipating for years finally came on Jan. 30, 2017. At the time, they were four hours out of El Paso, having visited Jennifer's grandmother. But they stepped it up as they headed home, made their flight on time and arrived in Phoenix at 8 a.m. the next day. All went well with the transplant surgery. Jennifer even surprised the staff with her newfound energy after surgery was complete.
Two days after her kidney transplant, Jennifer and Valerie were welcomed at The Village at Mayo Clinic, where they stayed so Jennifer could rest and recuperate in the serene desert setting.
"It's like one big family." Jennifer says. "I love the staff and community of people going through the same thing."
They returned home on March 12, where Jennifer now devotes her time to doing inspirational speaking and mentoring kids who are going through a health crisis. When asked how she managed to soldier on through her challenging journey for such a long time, Jennifer has a ready response.
"You have two choices. You either fight, or lie down and die," she says. "I'm still here for a reason."