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.
"I don't know if I could ever ask anybody for a kidney," he said. "I just assumed that someday I will get one."
At first, Brennan was suspicious of Maldonado's motives and asked whether he hoped for some financial gain.
"You are so paranoid," Brennan said, explaining his initial skepticism. "I don't know him from Adam, and he wants to give me his kidney. One thing led to another and he said, 'Can you get me proper paperwork to fill out?'"
Maldonado's doctor gave him a clean bill of health. He had never suffered any illnesses apart from using eyedrops for glaucoma.
"I think God had me healthy all these years so you can have this kidney," Maldonado told Brennan.
Brennan and Maldonado had 95 percent compatibility, which shocked even Brennan's transplant surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Kovler Organ Transplantation Center in Chicago, which performs about 350 to 400 kidney transplants yearly.
"Brothers even usually don't get that high," Brennan said.
After a month of testing, the transplant surgery was scheduled for Dec. 27.
Brennan kept asking Maldonado whether he was sure about going through with it.
"He asked me all the way up to the operation room just about every time we would meet or talk," Maldonado said.
New lease on life
Maldonado didn't tell his wife and daughter about his decision to donate his kidney until the day before the surgery. He said they were supportive, having been through the experience themselves.
Brennan's wife, Barbara, who had her right kidney removed because of cancer, was fearful for Maldonado's life in case the operation didn't go well. But the couple agreed they couldn't pass up his offer.
The surgery was a success. Maldonado was sent home the next day, and Brennan was released from the hospital four days later.
Brennan can now travel without worrying about being hooked up to a dialysis machine for four hours every other day.
"I feel like I kind of have my life back," he said.
Still a bit sore from the surgery, Maldonado returned to work last week performing light duties. Casino management and employees threw a surprise celebration in his honor and dubbed Friday Jaime Maldonado Day.
Maldonado said he hopes his story will inspire others to become organ donors.
"Giving a kidney and helping somebody to have a better life is not going to hurt one's life," Maldonado said.
Today, Brennan and Maldonado share a bond deeper than friendship.
"He's family," Brennan said. Maldonado added, "It was meant to be."