Brother gives Harrison baseball coach Mendez the gift of life

Jairo Mendez is living his life normally these days.

The former Kearny High School ace pitcher _ who helped to lead the Kardinals to the 2002 NJSIAA Group IV title game _ and former Montclair State standout has been the head baseball coach at Harrison for the last four years.
At age 33, Mendez is enjoying life to the fullest. A few months ago, he didn’t know if he was going to be able to have such a chance.

Mendez was born with immunoglobulin A (IgA) nephropathy.

The disease, also known as Berger’s disease, is a kidney disease that occurs when IgA deposits build up in the kidneys, causing inflammation that damages kidney tissues. IgA is an antibody that is a protein produced by the immune system that protects the body from bacteria and viruses. IgA nephropathy affects the kidneys by attacking the tiny blood vessels in the kidneys. The buildup of IgA deposits inflames and damages the kidneys, causing the kidneys to leak blood and protein into the urine.

Eventually, IgA nephropathy can lead to end stage kidney diseases, which means the kidneys no longer function. When the kidney fails, the person needs a transplant or long stays on dialysis machines.

“I was on medication, so the disease didn’t get to me,” Mendez said. “I took medicine for over 10 years. It showed up when I was a sophomore in high school. One day, my urine was iced tea color. I thought it would happen once and go away, but when I was in class, I didn’t feel good. The nurse in school made me give a sample and when I did, she told me I had to go to the hospital. There was blood in my urine and a leakage in my kidney.”

Mendez required a biopsy to his kidney. The IgA nephropathy was diagnosed.

“After I got the medication, I was up and running soon,” Mendez said. “I was a three-sport athlete at Kearny. I was doing my thing. I didn’t think much about it.”

But over the last three years, Mendez started to see signs.

“My kidney function dropped dramatically,” Mendez said. “The doctors told me that I had to get on the transplant list or I was going to dialysis. I was definitely pro-active in trying to avoid dialysis.”

So Mendez sat down with his family, his two older brothers and his younger sister, and told them what was going on.

“We all talked about it,” Mendez said. “I had to tell my parents, because they were out of the loop.”

At that meeting, John Mendez, Jairo’s older brother by three years, didn’t flinch or hesitate.

“I honestly didn’t know about his condition or how serious it was,” John Mendez said. “When he told us that he was going into kidney failure and was on the waiting list for a transplant, I couldn’t believe it. When I learned how serious it was, I was going to help.”

So John Mendez decided to give his little brother a kidney to help him live.

“There was never any hesitation whatsoever,” John Mendez said. “I never thought of death being the outcome. I just wanted to help my brother. I never had any surgery in my life prior, but that same day, I filled out the paperwork. The doctors said that they would get in touch with me.”

John Mendez said that it was almost like fate.

“I was a match right away,” John Mendez said. “No one else needed to be tested. Sure, I was nervous, but I never even thought of it. He’s my brother. I know he would have done the same for me.”

Jairo Mendez felt a little skeptical at first.

“I didn’t want my brother to jeopardize his life for mine,” Jairo Mendez said. “I really had mixed emotions. It took a little bit of time to do it.”

Finally, on January 10 of this year, John Mendez gave his little brother the gift of life.

The eight-hour surgery took place at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston.

“The people at St. Barnabas were great,” Jairo Mendez said. “The whole entire process went great. I didn’t know about the whole transplant procedure, but I went through it together with the doctors. I was always asking questions of the doctors. I wanted to make sure that nothing happened to John.”

After they did the surgery, Jairo got emotional.

“I can’t thank him enough,” Jairo Mendez said. “Words can’t even describe how blessed I am to have him. I don’t even know how I would be feeling today. I can’t describe the feeling I have. I’m speechless over it. It’s overwhelming.

Added Jairo Mendez, “I honestly didn’t know how sick I really was. But I now have so much more energy. I’m alive. I always felt tired. I always wanted to lay down and take a nap. It’s crazy how much energy I have now.”

Mendez credited his assistant coaches, Charles Comprelli and Nick D’Errico, for their help during his crisis.

“I got myself back into shape and I came back,” Jairo Mendez said.

As for John Mendez, he is also healthy again.

“After a couple of weeks, I felt better,” John Mendez said. “After five weeks, I was fine. It’s an incredible feeling. Words can’t explain how fortunate I was to help him out. It was an unfortunate situation for him. He didn’t want to go through dialysis and I understood.”

John Mendez had a message for his brother.

“I don’t want him to think that he has to do something to repay me,” John Mendez said. “This came from my heart. I would do it for someone I love. And I love my brother. I don’t have to tell him that I love him to let him know I love him.”

The surgery has brought the two brothers closer together.

“There’s almost a newfound respect for us,” John Mendez said. “It has brought us closer together. We’re not just brothers. We’re good friends. We play ball together. It’s more of a friendship than anything. It was a very rare event to be able to do something like that for my brother. The love is there. It’s a great feeling to know I was able to help him out.”

Jairo Mendez, healthy and happy and living his life again, has one message to readers.

“I hope this spreads awareness,” Jairo Mendez said. “I hope that other people will do the same. The test is a very easy one to take. And look, it saves lives.”

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer