They are cousins, next-door neighbors and tamal makers. If that’s not enough to bond El Pasoans Elva Atilano and Maria Elena Pacheco, they both also have chronic kidney disease.
Pacheco, who is 82 years old, was diagnosed first and has been on dialysis for nine years. When Atilano, 68, got her diagnosis a couple of years ago, she knew who to turn to for support.
“For me, it was a big blow,” Atilano said. “It was like, ‘oh my gosh, what’s going to happen?’ My kids were devastated…my cousin too because she had already gone through that.”
Atilano is a retired student loan coordinator at El Paso Community College. She said it was her diabetes that brought on her kidney failure and has been on dialysis for nearly a year.
“I really didn’t take care of my diabetes and my high blood pressure. And although they gave me medicine, it was not controlled and eventually that caused my kidney failure.”
Patients with chronic kidney disease go through dialysis treatments where excess water and toxins are removed from the blood.
When Atilano was diagnosed, she started going to the same nephrologist as Pacheco.
“At the beginning she told me, ‘this is what’s going to happen and look at me. In nine years I’m still here,'” Atilano said of Pacheco, who she often refers to as Elena. “It’s something that’s difficult to accept, but thank God I have my cousin that gave me a lot of encouragement. She encouraged me, she gave me a lot of moral support because she has already gone through that. So we became even more close than we were before.”
Pacheco used to work at a furniture factory in Ciudad Juarez. Speaking to ABC-7 in Spanish, she said that the nurses and doctors at their clinic have become like another family to her and her cousin.
For those who have just been diagnosed with kidney disease, Atilano suggests they choose a similar clinic that is small so to build a relationship with the doctors.
“Once you’re on dialysis, make friends,” Atilano said. “You’ll make friends there, if you don’t have family there to support you.”
A part of Pacheco’s advice to Atilano is what to avoid in her diet.
“We need to limit our liquid intake. That’s probably why Elena has lasted such a long time with dialysis, because she keeps a very good diet.”
Atilano and Pacheco try to see each other every day and if they can’t, they’ll talk over the phone.
“Our front porch, that’s our little chatting area. In the evenings, we go out there, we talk, we put music on, we reminisce, and we talk about our experiences [with dialysis].”
If they aren’t on the front porch, they’re in the kitchen, especially this time of year when the tamal-making is in full swing.
“We make a lot of tamales,” Atilano joked. A truck-load of tamales is what she needs for a family with 19 grandchildren. In Spanish, Pacheco said making tamales is their tradition. Something the two of them will do on Saturday, early enough to get them finished before Atilano’s birthday, which is on Christmas Eve.