DES PLAINES, Ill. (AP) — For a year and a half, Timothy Brennan has been a regular at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, faithfully playing the slots with the hope of winning big.
Brennan recently hit the jackpot. But it was something the 64-year-old Elmhurst man could never have imagined winning, and more valuable than all the money the casino could ever pay out: a kidney donated by a casino valet.
After surviving triple bypass surgery, losing a portion of his left ear to cancer, and having his gall bladder removed, Brennan was told about five years ago that his kidneys were failing. He was given three weeks to live if he didn't immediately start dialysis treatment.
Brennan had been on dialysis for nearly four years when he met Jaime Maldonado.
"I just couldn't catch a break ... and here this angel comes along," Brennan said.
Maldonado, 62, of Chicago, parks cars, greets guests and opens doors for casino patrons. He recognized the bandaging on Brennan's arms from dialysis treatment because his own 60-year-old wife, Julia, had been on dialysis for years before receiving a donor kidney from a cadaver.
Julia Maldonado's donor kidney failed 11 years after her first transplant. She went back on dialysis until the Maldonados' daughter, Carola, donated her kidney.
Maldonado said he understood what Brennan was going through and felt his new friend deserved a better quality of life.
"I know what it is (like) to take care of somebody for two years that's going on dialysis day in, day out," Maldonado said. "I said, 'That's not a life for you, Tim. You have to have a better life for you and your wife.'"
As fate would have it, Brennan and Maldonado are the same A-positive blood type.
Upon sharing their stories, the two men found common ground in their military backgrounds and life experiences.
Brennan served in Korea, while Maldonado is a Vietnam War veteran. Brennan retired after serving as a firefighter for 30 years with the Leyden Fire Protection District, while Maldonado drove a Salvation Army canteen truck supplying doughnuts and coffee to emergency responders during fires.
Maldonado said he was hesitant at first to ask about Brennan's illness and wanted to respect his privacy.
"I got to know him a little more every time he would come in and one day I said, 'What would it take for me to give you a kidney?'" he recalled.
"I was dumbfounded," said Brennan, who never even thought to ask his own three brothers for a kidney.
He signed up for the National Kidney Registry five years ago and was told there were 6,000 people on the waiting list ahead of him in Illinois alone. The wait time for a kidney is five to seven years, Brennan said.