Bettye Mendez lives in fear of the next moment.
Every second is more worrisome than the last, for with each one that escapes, is a fraction less of a chance that her husband will still be with her.
Thomas Mendez needs a kidney.
Thomas’ kidneys have been failing since the couple moved to Sandestin 10 years ago, but only recently was he deemed eligible and in dire need of a transplant. When your kidneys go bad, they do it slowly, Bettye said.
Putting Thomas on the waitlist is useless. His doctor said the wait time for a kidney is at least five years, and, at 76, he doesn’t have that kind of time to wait. There are more than 91,000 people on the waiting list for a kidney donation, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
Thomas needs a kidney donor now.
“I don’t want to lose him,” Bettye said. “I’ll be alone really. I’m not sure I’m prepared for that. So it is hard — everyday is hard now.”
A donor is all Thomas needs. He has already been approved for the transplant in the Kidney Transplant Program at Ascension Sacred Heart Pensacola. And, as a U.S. Air Force veteran, his health insurance will cover the cost of testing, the procedure and other medical expenses for the donor.
If Thomas doesn’t find a donor, he will die. If he does, the doctor predicts he will live a long and healthy life, Bettye said.
“Thomas mentioned to (the doctor), ‘Well I’m 76 years old,'” Bettye said. “(The doctor) said, ‘I just did one four months ago that was 76 and he’s doing well and so is the donor. In fact, I’ve done one on an 80 year old.'”
Thomas is a vital organ away from watching his grandchildren graduate, playing with his great-grandchildren and celebrating his golden anniversary with his forever love. And it’s an organ Bettye would give up in a second, but doesn’t have to spare because of her own health conditions — and none of their relatives can either. Some medical conditions prevent organ donation, such as uncontrolled high blood pressure, diabetes or cancer.
Their last potentially viable relative, Thomas’ brother, died of COVID-19. Thomas couldn’t even attend the funeral because he is considered high-risk for the coronavirus.
So, yes Bettye feels as if time has abandoned her. Every morning is another day she wakes up wondering if someone, anyone will save her husband.
Without a kidney, Thomas will die. And without Thomas, a piece of Bettye will always be missing.
It used to take Thomas 45 minutes to cut the grass; now it takes him almost two hours.
He probably shouldn’t be cutting the grass at all.
For quite some time, Thomas has had a tube in his arm for when he undergoes dialysis, a kidney failure treatment to clean out toxins from the body, Bettye said. His body could betray him at any moment.
Bettye has watched Thomas’ energy deplete. He went from taking B12 and Procrit shots to help with his energy once every three weeks to once every week.
No, Thomas probably shouldn’t be cutting the grass. But he has always been a doer.
He’s a quiet man, Bettye said, the type who shows his feelings through actions rather than words. He’s a jack of all trades, too — he can fix the car, build a fence or cut down a tree.
“He’s always been my helper,” Bettye said. “He didn’t make me do everything.”
Two years ago, Thomas taught their grandson, Gaige, how to cut down a tree. Gaige has autism. He is strong but couldn’t have done it on his own, Bettye said.
“(Gaige) did most of the work, but it made him grow even closer to Thomas,” Bettye said. “Thomas showed him how to use the tool and how to stack the wood. It just meant a lot to him. Thomas has taught him a lot about tools and stuff like that. He’s always spent time with him.”
Thomas and Bettye have had an extremely close relationship with Gaige since he was born. Every weekend for five summers, they took him to Navarre to learn how to surf with the volunteer program Autism Surfs.
“He loves us and we love him, and we do well with him,” Bettye said. “I don’t know what he’d do without Thomas; he loves him so much.”
Thomas and Bettye have a son and two grandsons in Dothan, Alabama, and a daughter in Pike Road, Alabama, who has two children. And, by their daughter’s two children, they have two great-grandchildren.
That’s why Thomas is fighting. That’s why he’s outside cutting the grass.
“I want to see them grow up and graduate from high school and things like that,” Thomas said. “That gives me the fortitude that keeps me going to stay strong and continue doing the things that need to be done.”
Thomas’ condition weighs heavily on their family.
“I never really realized how scary it is when your family is just being torn apart,” Bettye said. “My kids want to help, too, but they can’t. They’re hurting. I’m just devastated. I worry everyday.”
Thomas isn’t depressed.
Mentally, he feels good, he said. It’s the physical part that’s hard.
Thomas can’t golf anymore. He can’t play with his grandchildren anymore. He can barely do yard work.
While his exterior seems calm, he has never been a man of words.
“It’s scary,” Thomas said. “Anytime they’re telling you could kick the bucket the next day, it’s kind of scary. It worries me; it worries my wife that she doesn’t know what’s going to happen to me and I don’t know what’s gonna happen to me. It’s a worrisome thing.”
Bettye is trying to stay strong for Thomas, but she doesn’t want to live without him.
The two have done life together since they met in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They dated some, went their separate ways and then dated some more, Bettye said.
“First thing you know, and we were married,” Bettye said with a laugh, as if there was no other possible outcome.
They spent 20 years adventuring with the military, Bettye embarking on a new job in every destination. They explored the mountains in New Mexico and wrangled up horses in Puerto Rico — Bettye loved it. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1984.
“I think the first 20 years of our marriage was playing house in a way,” Bettye said. “And we enjoyed playing house. It would be hard to miss him.”
The most wonderful part of civilian life was having Christmas with their family and friends. More than 20 gathered for the holidays — what joyful times.
“We played games and laughed so hard we ached,” Bettye said. “The third year, we had our get-together at our home and that is where we had it every year after that. Thomas cooked posole with all the trimmings and that settled it. We had desserts everywhere, taco salad, coffee punch and so much food it was sinful.”
As time passed and relatives died, the numbers dwindled. But those were the “super years,” Bettye said.
Then, after taking care of ill relatives, Thomas retiring from the Progress Rail and Bettye retiring from the U.S. Postal Service, they had carved out a space in time for the two of them. They went on several cruises together and then settled in Florida in 2009.
“We worked all our lives,” Bettye said. “I went to work right out of school and he’s been working since he was 16 or 17. We saved and lived frugally a long time so that when we retired we might could enjoy life more. We enjoy living here, and I thought we deserved it after all the years we worked.”
They had always lived in apartments with the military and finally got their own home.
“It’s not a big home; it’s just a regular home, but it’s quiet here,” Bettye said. “The grandkids, when they come, and the kids, they can go to the beach. That just kept them coming.”
These days, they enjoy going out to eat or watching movies — although they have skipped both since the coronavirus outbreak. They’ve always enjoyed going to the movies together, Bettye said.
“He likes one thing and I like another, but he’ll put up with me and go to a love movie,” Bettye said. “I’ll put up with him, because he likes the fighting movies or military movies. We’ve had our ups and downs like everybody, but we’ve lasted 49 years.”
Bettye hopes they make it to 50. What scares her is what could be an empty seat across the dinner table at one of their favorite date night spots, Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar, LuLu’s Destin or Christiano’s.
“He may do fine for the next six months, but what if he doesn’t?” Bettye said. “He can go downhill at any time. He’s very tired. He comes in and he sits in his chair and he’s asleep. He can’t function like he used to, which makes him sad. I don’t want to be left alone. We just had our 49th anniversary. I don’t know what I would do without him. I’m sorry, I’m more emotional than he is. He’s everything.”
And Thomas wants to be there for her, too.
“Even though we had ups and downs, we still love each other; we still care for each other and we still want to do for each other,” Thomas said. “She’s always there, has always been there for me and still is there.”
It’s hard for Bettye to fathom how a body part barely bigger than a paperweight is the difference between the rest of her life with or without Thomas. She knows it’s a lot to ask, but she prays someone will donate their kidney.
“I know it would be hard, especially for a stranger, but I know it happens,” Bettye said.
To find out more about donating a kidney to Thomas Mendez, call 334-320-6002 or leave a message at 334-322-1877. To be considered a living donor the person must be 18 years or older (able to consent), according to the Program’s website. In general, living donors must be healthy, freely willing to donate, and have two healthy kidneys. Although there is no upper age limit for donation, donors under the age of 60 years old are preferred.
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