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A friend indeed: Fundraising dinner planned for Turlock transplant families
turlock transplant friends
Rocio Valencia shares a drink at Starbucks with Isela Scroggins, weeks after Rocio donated a kidney to her friend Isela. - photo by PAUL ROUPE/The Journal

Isela Scroggins, a hairstylist at Suddenly Perfect hair salon, is buoyant, bubbly and there is no way to tell, other than her laborious rising from a high-seated chair, that just two weeks ago she received one of her best friend’s kidneys.

Inside her shop on E. Olive Avenue, the atmosphere is small but cozy, and upon entering it feels as if you had walked into a cosmetologist’s self-designed studio apartment. Rows of product line glass shelves on the seafoam green interior, where full length mirrors enclosed in thick black frames lean sleepily. On the back wall, a home-plate shaped plaque scripted with elegant cursive issues a succinct statement, one which seems to evoke the sense of serenity reflected in Isela’s smile: This is My Happy Place.

After she languished on the transplant waiting list for a year and a half, enduring torturous nine to 10-hour daily dialysis treatments, Rocio Valencia, who first met Isela at Adrian’s Beauty College in Turlock, found out that she would be a perfect donor match. When other family and friends tested failed to a match, this news came as a welcome surprise. Rocio had become frustrated at the lack of progress and decided to start the long testing process. She was elated that things appeared to be coming together.

“It felt right,” she says. “Everything had lined up perfectly. It was amazing.”

Their compatibility is magnetic, and if you believe in fate or destiny, this surely must be it. They are both married with two children, including 7-year-old daughters, were born about a year apart and when the two crossed paths for the first time in 1998 they gravitated toward each other. Rocio didn’t know anyone in Turlock, and Isela was the first one to approach her and offer her friendship.

Their relationship flourished, but in 2003 everything changed. That’s when a 23-year-old Isela started to experience symptoms that appeared unsettling yet innocuous. She was suffering from joint pain, fatigue and hives.

After a doctor’s visit, she was informed that she had lupus, an autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system can’t tell the difference between viruses, bacteria and germs and healthy tissues. Think of it as a malfunctioning metal detector unable to alert at the sight of a weapon, thus allowing both dangerous and safe items through without discrimination.

“I thought it would just disappear,” she recalls of her initial impressions. She thought she could just take her medication and everything would be fine. Still, she was reluctant to tell her family and friends. It took her weeks to let them know.

She soon discovered that the affliction required serious attention, and as the dialysis steadily consumed a total of about 3,000 hours of her life, so did the occasional pessimistic thought: What if there is no acceptable donor?

But through it all—the stacks of boxes delivered monthly for home treatment, the discomfort of being hooked up to a machine nearly half the day and the harrowing possibility that her hallway would be perpetually packed with solution and medical supplies—she remained upbeat.

“She’s always been in great spirits,” Rocio says. When there were no bright days on the horizon, she still “never complained. She’s always been very positive.”

Her faith also helped alleviate some of the stress. She and her daughter prayed. So did her family, Rocio, and Westside Ministries, a church that knows Isela as a committed member and volunteer.

For a while there was no good news concerning a donor who met the stringent requirements for a transplant.

Then Rocio found out that she was an ideal match. Isela’s world shifted almost instantaneously.

She still thanks God for bringing Rocio into her life, and now they are more like sisters. Isela even glowingly refers to her as “my superhero.”

“She was so willing,” Isela says of the donation. “There was nothing holding her back.”

Rocio knew she could get along with a single kidney, and helping a friend greatly in need outweighed any fear or hesitation.

When it came time for the four-hour surgery at UC Davis, she was more anxious than nervous. She just wanted Isela’s pain and suffering to end.

After the operations were completed and Rocio could move around, she was the first person to visit Isela in her room. They were both ecstatic that the most difficult part was over.

When Isela left the hospital three days later, she surged with happiness at being able to give her daughters a treat they hadn’t had in a while: The McDonald’s PlayPlace.

With her mother in tow, and armed with a facial mask and hand sanitizer for the kids to fend off potential attackers to her vulnerable new kidney, she enjoyed the first day of the rest of her life.

“I just feel so good,” she admits. She credits her husband Ben with standing by her every step of the way, and she is grateful to regain some semblance of normalcy in her life.

But since both Rocio and Isela are self-employed, the whole ordeal has come with a heavy financial burden. Even with insurance, Isela was shelling out $2,000 a month for her treatment.

Even though she is experiencing some pain and soreness and pops up to 30 pills a day, she’s not tethered to a machine, and that makes it all worth it. Her body hasn’t rejected the new kidney and she recently knocked one medication off her daily dosage, solidifying the surgery’s success. She plans to return to work in September.

“It’s all been such a blessing,” Rocio says. “I’m hopeful that everything will work out.”  

Both women have started Go Fund Me pages for donations and Westside Ministries is holding a fundraiser complete with a chicken BBQ dinner from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday at 952 Columbia Ave., in Turlock. Tickets can be purchased at Carr’s Cleaners, Bliss Salon & Spa (Rocio’s shop), ROQ Fit, Suddenly Perfect or Westside Ministries.