After six months on a strict diet, Raj Guntuku enjoys a potato chip after receiving a new kidney from Joel Morales. 

It was an ordinary December day and Joel Morales was getting ready to put the latest issue of the Neighborhood News into the recycling bin.

But first, he wanted to see what was going on in New Tampa, and maybe pick up a suggestion for a place to grab some dinner. Since moving to K-Bar Ranch from Ohio in late 2019, Joel and wife Shelby had practically been quarantined the whole time due to Covid. Maybe this night would be the one they would finally venture out.

So, he started thumbing through the pages.

Then, he stopped. A picture of a 13-year-old boy named Raj Guntuku, and his 70-pound Golden Doodle Benji, caught his attention. “I’ll probably never forget it,” Joel says. “It was such a cute picture.”

Joel read the story. Raj needed a kidney. His parents were desperate. 

Then, the strangest darned thing happened. Almost immediately, Joel decided he was going to give Raj his kidney. 

On March 4, just a few weeks after meeting for the first time and passing all of the required tests, Joel was wheeled into an operating room, and four hours later, his kidney had been transplanted into Raj.

“A miracle,” says Raj’s mother Radha. 

Just a few days later, both Raj, who friends and family call “Bunny,” and Joel returned home from the hospital, and they were online playing Fortnite together on the Xbox. 

“Joel is so happy to see him happy,” Radha says. “I don’t know if we will ever meet anyone like that in this world again, but we are so fortunate to have him.”

Raj has a new lease on life, and Joel is glad he could help.

So, the question remains, why did he?

“It seems strange to say, but when I read the article, it just seemed like the obvious thing to do,” says Joel. “I had done a tiny bit of research after I read the article, just to see the long-term impacts of donating a kidney, and it was surprising to me. It seems like there’s really nothing I have to watch out for or need to be careful of. I can’t take any more ibuprofen, and I have to eat enough protein, but to me it’s just life as normal. It just seemed obvious that there’s this poor 13-yr-old kid with his life ahead of him, and I should do what I can to help. Thank God I ended up being a match.”

Joel Morales

A wholesaler for Nationwide Insurance, Joel says he doesn’t regret his decision, even if some of his friends and co-workers questioned his sanity. 

“My boss said, ‘Hold on, let me see if I understand this — you have never met this boy, you never met this family, you have no relationship with them whatsoever, and you just decided to give your kidney to him?,’”  Joel says. “That was the moment I probably understood it was a little bit crazy.”

But, the only person he really had to convince was Shelby, and her primary concern was what if their 2-year-old son Leo, or another family member, needed a kidney one day?

“My thought process was, if you look at the stats, the chances of one of our children or someone in our family needing a kidney are extremely low,” Joel says. “But, the chances of Raj needing a kidney is 100 percent. He needs one. He might not get one.”

It was only a 10-minute conversation. Joel said he probably had that look in his eyes, where Shelby knew he wasn’t going to be talked out of it. Besides, he reasoned, “Hopefully now, we’ve got some good karma coming our way.”

Radha says Joel certainly deserves it. Before he read the article about Raj in the Neighborhood News, she had been relying on a growing list of 15 or so potential donors who had stepped forward after a television report on Thanksgiving Day.

More names were added as time went on. The Neighborhood News article about Raj’s plight hit mailboxes on December 8.

“You put in a great article which was super detailed,” Radha says. “When I read it, I even started to get emotional, even though it is our own story. So many people told us they read it.”

However, day by day, many potential donors had dropped out. Some were talked out of it, others were worried about being able to afford missing work, and some just changed their minds. 

Raj and Joel meet for the first time. 
(Photo courtesy of the Guntuku family)

Soon, a carefully curated spread sheet which, Radha says, had as many as 30 names on it at one point, had red lines through most of those potential donors, and only four remained.

Then, Joel called. He asked Nehru, Raj’s dad, to explain the process. Joel says he told Nehru it sounded as if he had explained all this before, and Nehru said he had. But, few had followed through, and it was becoming frustrating.

Joel, however, was in it to the finish. He filled out the paperwork, got tested and, on Feb. 24, was approved to be Raj’s donor. The surgery was scheduled.

The families finally met at Raj’s Tampa Palms home a few days later. 

Everyone was too nervous to eat, and they just ended up nibbling at the Olive Garden and Liang’s Bistro takeout Radha had picked up. Raj, however, was bursting with joy. 

It was a great night, both families say. Raj and his sister Bhavika, a senior at King High, thought Joel was “cool,” Shelby spent the night cracking jokes and Joel left knowing that he had a made a great decision. 

On the way home, he turned to Shelby and said he hoped the Guntuku family liked him.

“You’re giving Raj a kidney,” Shelby said. “I think they like you fine.”

And they both laughed.

On March 4, Raj and Joel went in for the surgery. Joel was home after two days, while Raj came home on March 9. The families have spoken via FaceTime every day since.

Thanks to Joel, Raj has a functioning kidney and was able to enjoy a happy homecoming after the successful kidney transplant surgery earlier this month.  

Raj had been sick for much of 2020. In early September, he vomited after waking up one morning, and it happened again a few weeks later. He went and had bloodwork done, and the results concerned his doctor. In October, Raj was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease (CKD), which is characterized by the gradual loss of kidney function. He was Stage 5 at the time, and his kidneys were operating at less than 10 percent of their normal function.

Raj has been on a strict diet ever since, and will need to watch what he eats now that he has a new kidney. He told Joel the first thing he was going to do after receiving his kidney was eat a slice of cheese pizza. 

However, his diet will have to be limited. He will need to eat healthier, but Radha says Raj is ready for that challenge. At a Super Bowl party a month before his surgery, everyone was celebrating the Tampa Bay Bucs’ victory with cupcakes. 

“I would like to eat,” Raj said, “but sadly, I cannot. No thank you.”

Raj’s immunity will be lower than it used to be, and special care will need to be taken for the next 90 days. He is on seven medications, gets his blood tested twice a week, and has to stay out of the sun. 

He is eager to shoot some hoops, but contact sports like soccer and football are off limits. His dream to be a grand master at karate, which he has been taking since he was 4, may be in peril, but Radha says they will have to decide on that later.

It is likely that Raj will have to go through this process again, in 20 or 30 years, so he needs to maximize the health of this kidney. “He knows he needs to be careful,” Radha says.

As for Joel, he was off the pain medication in a week and doctors say he’ll be fully recovered in 4-6 weeks.

“They really just said stay away from contact sports, so my future NFL career is no longer an option at the ripe age of 28,” Joel says.

He’s back at work, and every once in a while he thinks about the selfless decision he made. He doesn’t regret it for a second.

“I don’t think I knew, even today, just how big a deal this was, which probably helped with the nerves,” Joel says. “I  genuinely just felt like this was the obvious thing to do. I may not have thought about it as much as I probably should have, but even if I had, I still think the outcome would have been the same. It was definitely well worth it.

“I’d say I’d do it again, but I can’t. You can only do this once.”

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