Felix Benavidez considers himself “a walking miracle.”
He was just elected to the Pojoaque Valley School Board. He has served as a special education social worker in the Pojoaque Valley School District for 18 years, after serving in the Santa Fe Public Schools for 13. In his office is a punching bag, a dartboard and a miniature golf set: “That’s what the kids use and some staff members when they just have had enough, to take out their energy,” he said. “The kids come in here, they shoot darts, or they put-put-golf, or whatever needs to happen to help them relax.”
He says hello to everyone he passes in the halls, inquiring about how they’re doing, making jokes.
Eight years ago, as Benavidez made his pilgrimage to the Santuario on Good Friday, he was bitten by a flea, and he contracted the bubonic plague.
Doctors did not immediately diagnose his disease, his wife Elaine Benavidez said. They tested him for diverticulitis, for leukemia, for brain cancer. Without realizing what ailed him, they chose a combination of antibiotics that kept him alive, helped him slowly feel better.
Then, the day he was released from Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, Elaine said, a doctor “comes in, and he throws up his hands like it’s a touch-down. And he says, ‘It was the bubonic plague! The bubonic plague!’”
While the doctors were trying to understand his condition, they discovered a mass on his kidney.
“(The plague) saved my life, because that’s when they discovered I had kidney cancer,” Felix said. “So God puts you in a position where, ‘Hey, I’m gonna give you this so that we can find this.’”
For years, Felix waited to receive a kidney by donation. Multiple times he almost received one—but some of the kidneys were high-risk, and one was affected by undiagnosed diabetes. Elaine decided to give him hers.
The date of the surgery, Sept. 26, 2017, loomed.
“If I had ultimately given my kidney to Felix, Felix and I would have been in surgery at exactly the same time,” Elaine said. “They would take out my kidney first and then they would open Felix up and then place my kidney into him.”
There was no guarantee the transplant would work.
“There’s always those last-minute checks to make sure everything’s a match,” Elaine said. “And anything can go wrong at any time. You even have to go so far as to make sure that the connecting veins between the donor kidney and the recipient are long enough so that they can actually connect to each other. And you really don’t know that until you’re inside people.”
Months before the procedure, a friend of the Benavidezes, Elsa Aguirre, began praying for them, Aguirre said, and she asked her church group to pray, too.
“I asked God that He help us, that He would make it possible that there would be a kidney for them.”
Aguirre’s nephew, Mario Cordova, was killed in a hit-and-run in Phoenix about two weeks before the surgery. One of his kidneys was destroyed in the collision, but the other was still functional. On Sept. 16, 10 days before Elaine and Felix were going to have surgery, Aguirre gave Felix the kidney through a designated donation.
“I had a lot of faith in God, that he would see to something good for them, but I never imagined that it would be my nephew’s,” she said.
For a time, she said, she worried that her prayers had somehow caused her nephew’s death, even though her sister, Cordova’s mother, reassured her that she had only asked for her friend’s health.
She said she is grateful that Felix could have the kidney. Another person received one of her nephew’s lungs, a third received his liver, and a fourth received his heart.
“It’s a great hope, it takes away a little bit of the pain and the sadness, knowing that there is someone who is doing well,” she said. “Thanks to God that some of his organs are still here, helping someone and serving someone.”
Sitting on a concrete slab beside U.S. Highway 285, Felix discussed his School Board campaign and considered his survival.
“I’m sitting here because I’m blessed,” he said. “There’s plans for me. I don’t know what they are, but as long as I can keep giving and helping, that’s it.”
He had served on the Pojoaque Valley School Board before, in the 1990s, and he decided to try to serve there again.
He began another sort of pilgrimage, to understand voters’ concerns: he walked through Nambé and El Rancho, Arroyo Seco and Cundiyo, knocking on each door and listening to the person who opened it.
“You just walk, and you really don’t take a message to them—I think you take a listening ear,” he said. “I spent a lot more time listening to what they had to say, things like, ‘You know what, no one’s ever been here before. No one’s ever come to my door before.’ Things like that, or they would share with you.”