JR Rivera, a 30-year-old resident of Virginia Beach, considered being a kidney donor for his twin, RJ, since the day his brother was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy in 2009. The condition causes kidney failure.
“I knew I’d be the best match, so I started thinking about it,” says JR. “We’re both pretty happy people and like to socialize and exercise. I didn’t want to see him stuck to a dialysis machine three times a week.”
Although his left kidney was only functioning at a 20 percent rate, RJ’s health declined just slightly at first. But in 2015, he lost weight unintentionally, looked gray and experienced a metallic taste in his mouth.
“I was ready for a transplant,” RJ says. “My kidney function was down to two percent.”
A perfect match
JR’s belief that he’d be a good match was correct: Physical and psychological tests proved so. According to Harlan Rust, medical director for the Sentara Norfolk General Hospital kidney transplant program, twins usually match well. Blood types and some cellular conditions must match for a transplant, and they often do with twins like the Riveras and other siblings. Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, the only hospital in Hampton Roads offering transplants, has performed a handful for twins.
Back in action
After JR’s testing, RJ entered Sentara Norfolk General Hospital for kidney dialysis before the transplant.
“It helped me be at my best for the operation,” he explains. A few days later, JR was prepped for surgery, along with RJ.
“My part of the transplant took only three hours,” says RJ. “In total, with the removal of JR’s left kidney, it was still only five hours. We saw each other later in the day.”
“It was an awesome experience,” says JR, who is the older twin by one minute. “We found everyone was so nice and helpful. The nurses and the nurse care partners were amazing.”
RJ adds: “They checked on everything. It was excellent.”
JR was in the hospital for two and a half days, and RJ for one week, including the time he spent receiving dialysis first.
“I was standing the same day after the transplant,” says RJ. “A little over two weeks later, I was jogging.”
Another good thing: JR and RJ underwent DNA testing a few weeks after the transplant and discovered that they are identical twins, not fraternal as they had always been told. As an identical twin, RJ will not reject his brother’s donated kidney, something that can happen with fraternal twins. Doctors are slowly helping him wean off anti-rejection medications.