A year ago this December, a remarkable story of love, sacrifice and family was approaching its culmination within Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.
On that day, Nanette Zumwalt — a wife, mother and entrepreneur who had been battling polycystic kidney disease (PKD) — was preparing to undergo a life-changing kidney transplant. Her journey to that point was not straight forward; it took an unforeseen path of fate, love and generosity.
That journey began in 2015 when Zumwalt embarked on an impromptu trip with her youngest son, Erick, who had just graduated from UCLA, and her daughter, Olivia. She already was in the grip of PKD, an inherited condition in which cysts grow on the kidneys and cause excruciating pain.
Although many volunteers from her circle of family and friends had come forward as potential kidney donors, none were found to be a suitable match. It would take a serendipitous meeting in Spain to find the person who would change the course of Zumwalt’s life.
A chance encounter
Zumwalt and her son and daughter were enjoying an evening dancing in a bar in Barcelona when his son met a young woman who would be the key to putting Zumwalt on a road to better health.
“Fate is funny like that,” Zumwalt said. “I wanted to go to Vienna, but Erick and Olivia wanted to go to Barcelona. So, we end up in Barcelona and we go to a bar and Erick meets Juliana there. She doesn’t speak English. He doesn’t speak Spanish. But they fall in love.”
As the young couple’s relationship developed, there were trips to Spain to strengthen the bonds between the two families. On one of those trips, Zumwalt confided in Juliana’s mother, Diana Bedoya, about her battle with PKD.
“Once I found out about Nanette’s condition, I knew I had to be the donor,” Bedoya said. “There was no doubt.”
Erick and Juliana married in 2021. That same year, Bedoya traveled from Spain to Los Angeles, and UCLA, to be tested as a potential donor for her new in-law. Juliana played an important role, as well. Bedoya didn’t speak English well, so her daughter became her intermediary. “I was the one talking to doctors on behalf of my mom,” Juliana said.
Finding the right doctor
Zumwalt’s mother had PKD and died in 2002 from conditions related to the disease. Despite knowing her predisposition to PKD, Zumwalt remained largely unaware about the condition. “When my mother died of PKD-related heart failure, not one doctor said, ‘Hey, this is genetic. You should probably get this checked out,’” Zumwalt said.
A series of discouraging encounters with physicians who offered little information or support eventually led Zumwalt to UCLA and Anjay Rastogi, MD, PhD, director of the CORE Kidney Health Program. She has been under his care since 2012.
“When Nanette and [Zumwalt’s husband] Rick first came to me, I wanted to make sure they were encouraged and reassured they were in the right hands,” Dr. Rastogi said. “They had received disturbing news from other physicians, but I knew we at UCLA had the best doctors and resources. There was no doubt that she was going to overcome this.”
“We knew we were at the right place,” Zumwalt said. “Dr. Rastogi was a godsend and renewed so much hope and optimism within me and my family.”
The anniversary of a rebirth
Once Bedoya was confirmed as a compatible donor, the path to Zumwalt’s eventual transplantation became clear.
“Donating an organ is probably the most altruistic decision a person can make,” said H. Albin Gritsch, MD, Zumwalt’s surgeon. “There is no way to place a value on restoration of kidney function and a normal quality of life.”
The surgery took place on December 20, 2022. “This is the anniversary of my rebirth,” Zumwalt says. “I went to sleep before the surgery feeling sick, and I woke up feeling significantly different. I didn’t realize how sick I was because I just kept pushing through. Now, I’m walking on the sunny side of the street.”
While donors and recipients often share a special bond, the one between Zumwalt and Bedoya is on another level, a bond created by fate. “My son, daughter and I go to a bar in Barcelona. There he meets Juliana, falls in love and they get married,” she marvels. “And my new daughter-in-law’s mother ends up being my kidney donor. How crazy is that?”