Longtime Pleasanton resident Rafael Herrera tossed the opening pitch as the San Francisco Giants celebrated Donate Life Day on July 8 -- almost five years to the day since he received a successful transplant amid his battle with kidney failure.
Throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a Major League Baseball game provided an all-time thrill. Doing so while representing a life-saving cause that restored his own good health made the moment all the more special for Herrera.
"It's an experience of a lifetime. I never in my life expected to do anything like this," Herrera, 59, said of his appearance at AT&T Park representing transplantation support organization Donor Network West. "The idea is to pay a tribute to the people that donate organs and to propagate the word that organ donation saves lives."
A native of Colombia, Herrera first moved to California for a couple years in the 1970s for undergraduate studies at University of the Pacific in Stockton. He and wife Marina relocated permanently in 1982 while he worked to complete a master's degree in operation research from Cal State East Bay.
After living in the Hayward and Fremont areas, the Herreras settled in Pleasanton in 1997.
Six years later, the married father of two then-school-aged children received a life-altering diagnosis: kidney failure.
"That was," he said with an emotional pause, "As you can imagine, that was horrible news."
"When they tell you that there's no cure for kidney disease, that you have to go on dialysis -- in other words, they have to clean your blood externally in order for you to continue living -- it was devastating news for me and for my family."
Doctors were unsure what caused his kidney failure but think it was tied to high blood pressure, according to Herrera.
He would begin with external hemodialysis at a dialysis center several times a week, which lasted three months.
He then transitioned to peritoneal dialysis. As the National Kidney Foundation describes, it's a process by which the abdominal cavity lining acts as a natural filter and impurities in the blood are removed by a cleansing fluid called dialysate, which is washed in and out of the abdomen through catheters.
During the day, Herrera recalled, he would complete regular "exchanges," removing the used dialysate and replacing with fresh fluid through the catheters. At night, he would connect to a machine that took care of the process while he slept.
"You have to be very disciplined, and you have to be extremely clean and careful with what you do because you're actually in contact with the inside of your system," he said.
Herrera faced rigid dietary restrictions and other life limitations, no longer able maintain an active lifestyle that used to involve skiing, windsurfing and frequent traveling for his work as an electrical engineer.
Still, he said peritoneal dialysis allowed him to live "some sort of normal life," including only biweekly visits to the dialysis center and enabling him to coach his kids' soccer team.
The treatment continued for more than seven years.
All the while, Herrera remained on the transplant list, waiting for help from a person he'd never met since no family members were viable candidates for him.
During those years, Donor Network representatives urged Herrera, "don't give up. It's going to happen eventually, one day, but you have to wait. It's a matter of matching the blood," he said.
That moment arrived around 1:30 in the morning on July 10, 2010.
"They're calling you from the donor organization. They have a kidney for you; they're asking if you want to come and take it," Herrera recalled his daughter saying that night.
"Immediately, obviously, sure. I've been waiting for this for 7 1/2 years," he said with a big smile, remembering the elation. "Then we all got very excited."
Herrera said the family headed to University of California San Francisco Medical Center that morning, and he was in surgery by 1 p.m. The operation lasted four hours, with doctors inserting the new kidney into his body without removing his non-functioning pair.
The new kidney started functioning on its own within a day and a half, and five days after surgery, Herrera was done with dialysis. "The kidney was doing its job," he said.
All Herrera learned about the source of the kidney was that it came from a woman around his age who died in Las Vegas.
"That person is in my prayers every day and my thoughts," he added.
The new kidney continues to function today, with the only lifestyle restriction that he has to take medication for the rest of his life, according to Herrera.
"It's been, obviously, an excellent experience for me," he said. "I have a new life, going back to normal things as before -- being able to exercise, spend time with my family, travel and pretty much everything a normal person does."
He said he was thankful for the support he received from his family and officials at Kaiser Permanente, DaVita dialysis center, Donor Network West and UCSF Medical Center throughout his illness and recovery. His son Daniel is now 23 and a student at San Francisco State. His 19-year-old daughter Juliana attends Las Positas College.
Herrera said his prognosis going forward is positive. According to the National Kidney Foundation, 54% of transplant kidneys are still functional at 10 years.
The Pleasanton man remains committed to the donation effort, making appearances on behalf on Donor Network West, often trying to increase education and awareness among Hispanics.
There are 22,000 Californians waiting for an organ transplant, almost 8,800 of which are Hispanic, according to data from the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Of those on the wait list, 40% are Hispanics -- the largest ethnic group.
"It is very important that Hispanics have family conversations about their wishes to register as organ and tissue donors. It is a very important talk to have," Noel Sánchez, public affairs manager of Donor Network West, said.
Herrera added, "The Hispanic community, the percentage of donors is very, very low. One of the ideas is to try to convey the message to them, the benefits of donating life."
Supporting awareness and in tribute to those who donated organs and tissue, Herrera stepped onto AT&T Park with ball in hand on behalf of the Donor Network before the Giants' game against the New York Mets.
He threw out the first pitch to Giants' relief pitcher Sergio Romo.
"I didn't quite make it to home plate," he said, with a chuckle. "It was a little bit short. It bounced."
Herrera was joined at the ceremony by two other transplant recipients: a man in his 30s who received kidney and pancreas transplants and a 12-year-old boy who received a kidney from his mother four years prior.
Herrera also got the chance to be the "balldude" retrieving balls in foul territory down the first-base side during the game. The other man was "balldude" on the third-base side, and the boy called "play ball" to open the game.
"The Giants' continued commitment to encourage fans to Donate Life and register as organ and tissue donors provides hope to the thousands in need of life-saving transplants in our service area," Donor Network West CEO Cindy Siljestrom said. "It shows that heroes are made on and off the field."
People can register as a donor at DonorNetworkWest.org or at the DMV. One organ donor can save the lives of up to eight people and a tissue donor can heal more than 50 others, according to the Donor Network.