From Near Death to Earning Bachelor's
By Tim Meehan
Sometimes life hangs by a string.
It was hanging by a thread for Rubi Duran a few years ago.
Diagnosed with advanced kidney failure following a trip to the emergency room for headaches and knee swelling, she was told by doctors she probably had two weeks to live if she hadn’t come in.
Immediate kidney dialysis ensued, but that only slowed the inevitable.
A child and adolescent development major at Cal State San Marcos at the time of her diagnosis, Duran’s only chance at survival was to find a match for a kidney transplant.
The ideal college student
Early in her college career, Duran was the type of student professors love having in their classrooms.
Attentive and present, she was active and driven toward a path of becoming a teacher.
The spring 2020 semester was truncated due to the onset of the pandemic in March. But even that didn’t slow Duran the student down.
A positive person with a huge smile, she was also working at a preschool in her hometown of Escondido while taking a full load of courses.
Janice Phung is an assistant professor of psychology at CSUSM. She had Duran in a class that spring and was impressed with her dedication to studying.
“She was the only student who diligently came to my office hours regularly and would come to ask questions, go over her quizzes and exams, and check in about her progress in the course,” Phung said. “She was also genuinely interested in the course content and wanted to learn as much as she could outside of class.”
Any doctor will say that a natural positive outlook on life is a crucial component to staying healthy. It’s even more important when someone is facing a life-threatening illness.
“It was evident to me that Rubi was an eager student who was proactive in ensuring that she would do well in my class, and her efforts made me much more understanding when she went through her health issues,” Phung said. “I already knew her as a student and as a person, and I knew what she was capable of accomplishing despite her health issues.”
The beginning months of the pandemic saw nearly everyone downplay their illnesses.
So when Duran had constant headaches and some knee swelling, she didn’t think much of it. Neither did her primary doctors. They were content with her waiting three months for an in-person visit.
But when she woke up one morning with a face so swollen she was hardly recognizable, a trip to the emergency room ensued.
Being young and healthy usually doesn’t concern medical professionals so quickly, but when her lab results came back, the worst fears were realized.
“It turned out that I had what they call end-stage renal disease, stage five,” Duran said. “I had kidney failure. The explanations that doctors told me is it's a very silent disease that no one knows until you get very ill. And sure enough, my symptoms like having a headache everyday was because I had really high blood pressure where I could have gotten a heart attack, and I didn't know it. My swelling was because I was retaining water for so long. They had no reasoning why I had this disease. It could have been an infection that my body was fighting since I was little, and I didn't know why.”
Basically, your body rejects your organs when this happens. For Duran, it happened to be her kidney.
There was no history of kidney disease in her family. That, combined with her age, stumped doctors. Without immediate action in the form of dialysis and eventual transplant, she would die. The dialysis was relatively easy to execute. The transplant, not so much.
So the prognosis and diagnosis were not nearly as important and urgent as the plan.
The clock ticks … TikTok
Getting a kidney transplant is normally a challenging process that often ends in disappointment.
The process usually begins with trying to find a match among family members. But that yielded zero results for Duran. That was a big blow because it typically takes 10-plus years to find a match if there’s not one in the family.
She got on the national transplant registry list, but as one can imagine, that list is extensive.
So Duran had an idea for a unique source to spread her story to a wide audience.
She had known the social media platform TikTok as a place to share short dance video edits. That was primarily what it was known for in its infancy.
In fact, she had personal experience with the power of TikTok when she posted a video of her older brother coming home from his military duty and surprising their parents. The video was so impactful, it gained her 70,000 followers almost overnight.
But her story was personal on another level.
“I had already known that I wanted to post my story on TikTok, but a part of me didn't want a lot of people to know,” Duran said. “So I knew that I was going to have to put myself out there. And I was just very scared because I know people weren't going to really understand me. I was very scared of what people were going to say or just label me as a disabled person and not see me for who I am. But that video (of my brother) went viral and I got so many likes, I knew I had to put my story out there.”
The reaction was immediate, kind and powerful.
Her message was clear – not solely to seek a matching donor but also to bring awareness of renal failure and its symptoms.
Her followers increased as her story was shared with thousands of people all over the world.
Someone about 100 miles up Interstate 5 would turn out to be the crucial recipient of her links.
As fate would have it
Duran got tens of thousands of likes and new followers. She made connections with others who had undergone kidney transplant surgery as well as family members of those currently waiting for a match.
Thousands of people applied to be a match. She found a community of support that went a long way into healing her and bringing her inner peace.
But the match wasn’t coming, and she was losing the thing that carried her throughout this brutal journey – hope.
Not to mention she lost 30 pounds as the dialysis treatment made her ill. It interrupted her school schedule, but thanks to Phung and other flexible faculty, she was able to stay relatively on track.
About a year after she posted her first TikTok video, doctors told her it was dire. If a matching donor couldn’t be identified soon, her health would rapidly deteriorate.
And then fate stepped up in the form of Sandra Leon.
A 26-year-old Army reservist, Leon volunteered her kidney at UCLA Medical Center shortly after returning from deployment. While waiting for paperwork to be completed, she started her own search and came across Duran’s post.
“She was looking for a donor with O positive blood type,” said Leon, now 28 and working as an HVAC dispatcher for Veteran Air and still in the Army reserves. “I knew I was O positive so I reached out to her and asked her if she had already found someone, and she responded letting me know she had not. So I immediately reached out to my UCLA coordinator and asked if it was possible to test me for Rubi’s match.
“I truly believe that we were both put in each other’s path by fate. My donation process was through a completely different county. It could have gone to anyone, but it went to Rubi. I am glad I acted quickly because it would not have been possible had UCLA already found a recipient that I was a match for.”
Duran was admittedly down at this point. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say she had lost hope. For someone who lights up the room with her smile and positivity, that was crushing news to everyone in her inner circle.
So when she received a call from her doctor one day on her way to work, her expectations were low.
“I thought she was going to call me just to do blood work to make sure that I'm still healthy to be on the list because every year you have to relist to be in the living donor program,” Duran said. “She just said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that we found a perfect match for you. Her name is Sandra Leon. She's 26 and in the military. She's really healthy. And she just genuinely wants to donate to you, and she found your story on TikTok, and she's already in touch.’ So yeah, that was like, ‘Wow.’ ”
When Duran recounts that moment today, she understandably gets emotional. It was the day her life changed forever.
The transplant surgery was in October 2021. To call it a success is an understatement. In fact, her surgeon told her it was the prettiest kidney he had ever seen so it should serve her well into old age.
“Rubi seemed like a very sweet and genuine person from her posts,” Leon said. “She looked hopeful, full of life, and despite what she was going through, she shared her story and her battle to spread awareness. I think us being so close in age also instantly convinced me. She still has her whole life ahead of her. I knew she should have a shot at life.”
Duran and Leon are close today. They talk or FaceTime daily. Leon refers to herself as an older sister.
The two large families will get together for a Mother’s Day celebration this weekend that will have extra meaning this year. Duran will graduate from CSUSM the following week, and Leon welcomed her daughter Sofia to the world just four months ago.
Duran will wear her cap and gown next week. Many students will walk across the stage having overcome remarkable challenges, Duran included.
If anyone deserves a break, it’s Duran. And she’ll take one. Her path to being a kindergarten teacher will veer to social work. She wants to enter a master’s degree program to train to help others like she was helped by so many social workers during her journey.
But that master’s program will wait at least a year so she can catch her breath, reflect on her journey and accomplishments, and give proper thanks to Phung, her family, her “kidney family,” and all of those in her inner circle and social media circle who helped inspire her.
It’s neither fair nor just to compare one person’s struggles to another. But perhaps no student will celebrate next week who without hope, generosity and maybe a miracle, wouldn’t be here.
“Never,” said Phung when asked if she ever had moments of mentally preparing for Duran not making it. “I never doubted what Rubi was capable of doing. I had moments of worry about her health and recovery, but I never doubted that once she was healthy again that she would get right back on the horse and finish up to graduate. It's just who she is.
“She is a resilient, resourceful and determined young woman, and I have no doubt that she can accomplish anything that she sets her mind to.”
Visit Rubi Duran's TikTok page to view videos of her kidney transplant journey.
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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