As the public health expert who is guiding Palm Beach County’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Alina Alonso isn’t prone to wax poetic.
But when asked what she is most thankful for in this tumultuous year, the county health director dispensed with the just-the-facts-ma’am approach that has typified her response to the health crisis.
Instead of recounting facts, figures and fatality rates, Alonso offered a rare peek at the woman behind the near-ever present mask by sharing her own well-guarded and potentially deadly health problems.
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“I am thankful for a friend who donated the gift of life by donating her kidney to me,” the 64-year-old physician said of the blessings she counts daily.
“I give thanks every night for that selfless gift,” she said.
The gift was given to Alonso three years ago by a woman she knew casually as the sister of one of her close friends.
Marie Carianna, who was living in New York at the time, knew her sister was worried about Alonso. While her sister wanted to donate her kidney, she was raising a family, running a business and simply couldn’t take the time off to do it.
Carianna, meanwhile, was at a different stage of life. “I knew I was healthy. I had time,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I can do it.’”
Alonso said she was stunned by Carianna’s offer. But, while grateful, she didn’t share her would-be benefactor’s unbridled enthusiasm.
“She’s so naive,” Alonso recalls thinking. “She doesn’t understand how difficult this is.”
Alonso said she tried to explain to Carianna why her generous proposition was doomed. People wait years to find someone who can donate a kidney to them. That hers could come from a random acquaintance? Impossible.
“Marie, I told her, it’s unlikely we’re going to be compatible,” she said.
But Marie was undeterred. “We’re going to be a match!” she insisted.
And, against astronomical odds, they were.
“It’s an amazing story,” Alonso said. “She’s one of those stubborn people that whatever she says gets done. I was trying to think positive but, as a doctor, it’s difficult because you know a little too much. She’s just a positive person.”
Carianna agreed that she had little reason to be so confident that her plan would work.
She did research that showed the vast majority of kidney donors live long, healthy lives so she wasn’t worried about her own fate.
But, while she knew she and Alonso were the same blood types, she acknowledged that there were a host of factors that could have made the donation impossible.
“I just honestly felt intuitively that it was going to be,” Carianna said. “I don’t know why I did, but my sister did, too. It was freaky weird.”
The journey that led Alonso from her busy life as the county’s health director to an operating room at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami began with a routine physical. A blood test showed her kidneys weren’t functioning properly.
“That can’t be,” she said when her doctor shared the test results. “I must just be dehydrated.”
After the doctor’s diagnosis was confirmed by a second test, Alonso slowly began to accept that she had inherited the disease that had claimed the life of her father decades ago. The affliction causes protein to build up, damaging the kidneys.
Still, even as evidence mounted that her kidneys were failing, Alonso refused to let the disease control her. Convincing herself that she was feeling no ill effects, she continued her life as usual.
Finally, her doctor intervened. “You have to go on dialysis,” she said.
So for three years, Alonso spent four hours every Monday, Wednesday and Friday tethered to a machine that did the work her kidneys could no longer do. While the dialysis was physically exhausting, she said she never missed a day of work.
The only real crimp in her lifestyle was her inability to travel because of the demands of dialysis. Slated to become president of the National Association of City and County Health Officers, she declined the post because she didn’t want to shirk her obligation to visit cities throughout the country.
When her oldest son graduated from high school, she managed to take him on a weeklong vacation by scheduling dialysis at cities they visited along the way.
While the trip showed that travel was possible, it wasn’t practical. “You basically lose the entire day,” she said of the time spent in dialysis.
By then, she had begun thinking about a transplant. But there were no easy matches. Her mother was too old. Her sister had health problems of her own. While her sons both offered to be donors, she said she couldn’t reconcile the idea of taking a kidney from either of her children.
Then, along came Carianna, who made what had seemed impossible, possible.
Looking back, Alonso said she was incredibly lucky. The operation went flawlessly. The kidney she received from Carianna began working immediately.
The operation was much more difficult for Carianna than Alonso. But, Carianna said, she has no regrets.
“It was pain for what, 10 days? That’s not much of a price to pay,” said Carianna, who now works remotely from West Palm Beach as the chief information officer for a private Jewish college in New York City.
She shuns the notion that what she did was bold, much less courageous. “I just felt it was something I could do,” she said. “I have two kidneys; she needs one. Why wouldn’t I donate it?”
Likewise, Alonso said she doesn’t think of the possible risks she still faces. The drugs she will take for the rest of her life to make sure her body doesn’t reject the kidney make her immune system less robust.
But, she said, even as she leads the county’s fight against the highly contagious coronavirus, she doesn’t worry.
“I still have this kidney that’s working well,” Alonso said. “She gave me the gift of life. There’s no doubt about it. I am so blessed to have so many things to be thankful for.”