Max Zapata of Clovis and Laura Amador of Long Beach were strangers five years ago when her need for a kidney and his decision to become an organ donor brought them together and set off a cross-country chain of organ donations.
They've remained friends since.
On Friday, Zapata, 55, traveled to Los Angeles as Amador's guest at her graduation ceremony to receive a masters' degree in social work at the University of Southern California.
There was no question Zapata would be invited to share in her accomplishment, Amador, 32, said. The two had an immediate connection after the kidney surgery in June 2009.
"This is a special day and of course I wanted him to be a part of that," she said.
Zapata had never heard of a donor chain when he decided to donate a kidney, but a notice in his Von's grocery store paycheck encouraging organ donation gave him a nudge.
In a kidney chain, a donor is matched with a patient who has found another donor with a kidney that is not compatible. The match allows the incompatible kidney to go to another patient. If that patient also has an incompatible donor, the chain can continue.
In Zapata's chain: He donated to Amador; Amador's brother, who was not a match, donated to a stranger in Elk Grove; and from there, the chain grew to at least 20 surgeries.
Organ chains have become a way to help patients streamline the long waiting process for a donation. Currently, 935 people in Fresno County are waiting for organs, said Anthony Borders, communications manager for the California Transplant Donor Network. And if you include the four surrounding counties, more than 1,500 people are waiting for organs, he said.
Before her kidney transplant, Amador, who grew up in Stockton, had spent three days a week on dialysis for four years. Wegener's granulomatosis, a rare autoimmune disease, caused her kidneys to fail.
After receiving the kidney from Zapata, she graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in psychology. Now that she has completed her graduate degree in social work, she will be working at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, she said.
"The kidney is doing great," Amador said. "I've been trying to balance school life and living a healthy lifestyle."
Zapata was exuberant about Amador's graduation -- and her future: "She often told me her passion is to help children and others."
She's "just an amazing person," Zapata said. "I'm just proud to have been able to help her out."
Get involved: To register as an organ donor, go to www.donateLIFEcalifornia.org
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6310, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beehealthwriter on Twitter.