HAMMOND | Felix Vazquez's Christmas gift from Allison Buell didn't come with a bow, but it's better than anything he could find under the tree.
She gave him a kidney.
They were strangers most of their lives, meeting face to face less than two weeks ago. The Whiting woman had reconnected with childhood friend Margaret Raduske — now Vazquez — and learned Margaret's husband, Felix, was a diabetic on dialysis and needed a kidney.
Margaret Vazquez remembers the life-changing conversation.
"I have a kidney. You want it?" Buell asked.
It was as matter of fact as someone commenting on the weather.
To Buell, it was a no-brainer.
"It's just the right thing to do," she said.
She never doubted it, even after a battery of tests determined she was a perfect donor match. Even after doctors and the Vazquezes said it was OK to back out if she changed her mind.
Backing down isn't her style.
"I have a spare one," Buell said. "I might as well give it away."
The 42-year-old Whiting woman is a lifelong athlete who was inducted into the Hammond Sports Hall of Fame in 2001. She conquered mountains in Colorado as an adult and broke athletic records in the 1980s while attending Clark High School. As she racked up sports accolades, she worked her way to the top of the class, graduating as valedictorian, with Margaret Vazquez right behind her as salutatorian.
After sharing classes, sports teams and big-hair styles, from St. John the Baptist in their elementary days through Clark in their teens, the two went their separate ways.
Buell started at Cornell, moved around and ended up graduating from Columbia College in Chicago with a journalism degree. Vazquez graduated from Franklin College and teaches at Glen Park Academy in Gary.
Over the years, they bumped into each other around town, at parades and stores. But it wasn't until recently when Buell was let go from her job that the two reconnected on Facebook.
As they caught up, Vazquez mentioned her husband of two years needed a new kidney. That's when Buell made her offer.
Since Dec. 9 of last year, 53-year-old Felix Vazquez had spent the hours between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays hooked to dialysis machines that cleaned his blood. He was on a renal diet and had to avoid many of his favorite foods, such as orange juice and coconut cream pie.
His company put him on disability.
The best kidney donor matches come from relatives, but his seven siblings were apprehensive and did not get tested. His wife was tested, but she wasn't a match. When Buell made the offer and came through as a perfect match, Vazquez said he couldn't believe it. A stranger was willing to give him a second chance at life.
"I haven't stopped shedding a tear since," he said.
Some people wait five to seven years to receive a cadaver kidney, and here was Buell, offering her healthy organ, Margaret Vazquez said.
"Her goal was to give him a kidney for Christmas," she said.
Two days ago, she did.
Surgeons at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, known for its transplant program, took one of Buell's kidneys Friday and implanted it in Felix Vazquez.
The surgery went smoothly with no complilcations, the patients said Saturday.
"I feel like I want to run a marathon," Felix Vazquez said. "It must've rubbed off."
Buell said she needed only one painkiller to manage her discomfort. She compared the ache to a side stitch — a muscle spasm runners sometimes experience — that won't go away.
Vazquez said it hurts when he coughs or makes sudden moves, but he is up and walking around. The moment doctors implanted Buell's kidney, it began functioning, Vazquez said.
He expects to come home today.
Earlier that week, he tried to express his thanks, but words weren't enough.
"I'm just blessed to have Allison," he said. "I don't know how to describe it. It's sheer jubilation. She gave me a second chance at life."
Buell said her thanks is knowing Vazquez will have a better quality of life.
"You living every day, that's the best," she told him.
The couple wanted to show some gratitude, so they gave Buell a Keurig single-cup coffeemaker because they remember how much she liked the one at the pre-operation meeting at the hospital.
"What do you give someone who gives your husband a kidney for Christmas?" Margaret Vazquez said. They also gave her a clock.
"You've given Felix the gift of time," she said.