Donna Durham, right, received a kidney from Wilfred Salas, son of Velma Valdez. Salas was shot and killed earlier this year. Durham is holding up a shirt with his photo. (Staff photo: Marlena Hartz)
In life, he did not follow a straight and narrow path. In death, Wilfred Salas saved four lives.
His mother chose to give his organs away to strangers, as well as to someone she knows, just moments after Lubbock doctors informed her that her son would not survive — a bullet was lodged in his brain.
“My landlord came across my mind,” said Salas’ mother, Velma Valdez.
“She needed a kidney, and I could see how it was tearing her apart.”
Two days later, Salas’ right kidney was placed inside the body of Donna Durham, Valdez’ landlord of seven years. Salas’ lung, left kidney, liver and pancreas were donated to three West Texas residents.
“It helps me cope,” said Valdez, in her landlord’s home, a tissue bunched up in her hand and her landlord beside her on a couch.
“I know we still have a part of him. He was my heart,” she said of her son, just 19 when he was shot on a cold morning earlier this year and left to die in a Clovis street. “He was the biggest part of my life. That he saved lives makes me feel good.”
With her hand gently patting the shoulder of her tenant turned savior, Durham dotted away her tears with a tissue, too.
Without Salas’ kidney, she and death would have continued an agonizing dance.
Durham blames the anti-inflammatory medicine she was prescribed for arthritis for ruining her kidneys. Diagnosed with adrenal kidney disease two years ago, she said she became so weak she could barely stand. Her skin hung off her body, Durham said, itching so badly she had scabs all over from scratching.
But with a new kidney secured not in the back, but the front of her body, the 65-year-old said she feels alive again. And her prayers have been answered.
“I always thought God had the perfect kidney picked out for me, and I would receive it on his time,” said Durham.
People can spend years idling on organs lists, and even if they do happen upon a donor, the donor and the recipient must be medically compatible. Salas and Durham were.
Still, Durham must take 32 pills a day to prevent her body from rejecting the organ. The medications suppress her immune system, so the risk of getting ill is amplified. But Durham brushes off annoyance of bottles of medicine and increased health threats.
“It’s a cheap price to pay for life,” she said.
Since her operation, friends and family have noticed changes in her behavior, unrelated to her health.
Valdez and Durham joke that some of Salas’ personality has rubbed off on the senior citizen.
“(Valdez) swears I am sassier now, like Wilfred,” said Durham, sheepishly admitting her use of offensive language and particularly the word “shut up” have increased since the operation.
For both Valdez and Durham, the friendly business relationship they shared has deepened. “I used to drop my rent off, and she always was there for me when I had a problem,” Valdez said. “But now, I get a feeling of warmth whenever I see her, like butterflies.”
That feeling, however, is often overshadowed by others, Valdez said.
The violent and sudden loss of her youngest son plagues her. She cries daily. And there are so many questions about his death that Valdez says may never be answered.
A 30-year-old man originally from California, Robert Macias, was charged with killing Salas, who was driving down a Clovis street when two bullets riddled his mother’s car and a third pierced his brain, entering below his ear lobe, his mother said.
Macias has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Though Salas was an admitted gang member, who served time in jail and in a juvenile detention center, and Macias has been charged before with shooting a person, Valdez said the slaying was not gang related.
She said a fight interrupted between friends of Salas and Macias at a local bar, and the dispute bled into the streets of Clovis.
She said she doesn’t know why her son was driving down the street where Macias stayed with his grandmother. But she said her son did not own a gun, and there were no shots fired from the vehicle.
“I’ll never have my answers. He shouldn’t have left the house that night,” Valdez said.
In the place of answers, the mourning mother has a sense of comfort, that from senseless violence grew hope.
“My son made bad choices in his life, but he always had a good heart,” Valdez said.
“Now,” she said, clutching her tissue tighter, “he will never be forgotten.”