GRINNING THROUGH TEARS, newlyweds Randall and Victoria Curlee of Mission Viejo, Calif., last week strode hand-in-hand into the packed pressroom of San Diego’s Sharp Memorial Hospital. “Look at that face,” cooed Victoria, squeezing her spouse’s cheeks like a fond grandma, while TV cameras rolled. “I feel great, absolutely wonderful,” said Randall, choked with emotion. “What do you say to someone who just saved your life?”
To begin with, thanks for the wedding gift. Randall, 46, a longtime diabetic, was one of 27,000 Americans who are candidates for the 8,000 donor kidneys available each year. “I wouldn’t have lasted much longer,” he says. Relatives volunteered to donate, but none proved a suitable match. Then Curlee’s fiancée, Victoria Ingram, 45, said, “Test me.” Although the odds for compatibility were 10,000 to 1, Victoria’s kidney proved to be just what the doctor ordered. After the press picked up on the improbable love match, the couple, to publicize the need for organ donations, allowed their Oct. 11 wedding, held in the hospital’s chapel, to be broadcast live on Good Morning America.
During the four-hour operation on Nov. 9, the Curlees lay in separate rooms, each with its own surgical team. First, Dr. Arturo Martinez, 36, removed Victoria’s kidney. After the organ was flushed clean, Dr. Robert Mendez, 55, sewed it into Randall’s abdomen—a delicate process requiring the linking of various veins and arteries. The couple each faced health risks from infection and blood loss; for Randall, there was also a 20 percent chance—standard for kidney recipients—that his body would reject the donated organ. “A few nights before surgery, Randy said one of us might not make it through this,” says Victoria. “I was very angry at him—I don’t even want to consider the negatives. Life’s too’ short.”
That seems to have been her motto since meeting Curlee in 1992. Divorced and the mother of a teenage son, Ingram, a real estate agent, was hosting an open house when Curlee, a marketing director who himself was getting a divorce, walked in. It wasn’t, she says, love at first sight. “I like tall, wavy-haired, good-looking guys,” she confides. “But Randy had this thick, gnarly beard and God, he had on this flannel shirt—he looked like a mountain man. But he had these beautiful eyes.”
He also had a daunting medical dossier. A native of Oak Park, Ill., Curlee has battled diabetes since childhood, and incidents of insulin shock have sometimes left him disoriented. “It’s more frightening for the people around me,” he says. “I don’t usually remember too much.” In 1985 he suffered a heart attack and underwent triple-bypass surgery. He also endured laser surgery to restore the sight in his left eye, which had been blinded by diabetes. “I broke up with him last August,” Victoria admits. “I just didn’t need the hassle of his health problems. But then I thought, ‘How would I feel if someone cast me aside for those reasons?’ We’ve been together ever since.”
They should be together for years to come, since Randall’s prognosis is excellent, and doctors say Victoria’s remaining kidney will compensate for the loss of the other one. “A lot of people simply don’t know that you can donate organs and still lead a full, healthy life,” Victoria says. “I’m proof of that.”
“They tell me I’ll really feel like a new man,” says Randall. Still, an element of uncertainty remains, even for the resolutely positive Victoria. “There is that fear of waking up and him not being here,” she says. “But I could get hit by a bus. We have to enjoy what we have now.”
JAMIE RENO in Orange County