MILWAUKEE — Jonathan Morales is like many young adults. At age 31, he works fulltime as a career coordinator for Employ Milwaukee, enjoys soccer and music, is in a relationship with his girlfriend of four years, was a cross country runner and completed his bachelor’s degree in communication last spring.
That’s the Morales most people see, but there’s another aspect to his life that he kept hidden for years.
Until recently, few people knew that Morales is on kidney transplant lists and undergoes kidney dialysis treatments six times a week from his home, each lasting about 2.5 hours as he hopes and waits for a kidney,
“When the treatments are good, I feel good and energized, but other times … my body is so tired, I can’t fall asleep, and it really affects me,” he said of the toll the dialysis takes on his body. “I’m not trying to be irresponsible or get away from work or use my condition as an excuse. I enjoy being at work and being active … but it definitely takes a lot from you.”
For years, Morales kept the fact that he has had End Stage Renal Disease for seven years from family, friends and coworkers, likely causing them to wonder why he missed work or was unable to attend other functions.
“For a couple years, people were not aware I was sick, because I did not speak out,” he explained in a video he posted early this year on his Facebook page. “I was ashamed and afraid to talk about it, because I was not sure how people would treat me or look at me.”
Has become his own advocate
Morales has begun to share his story in the hopes that not only will it help him obtain a life-saving kidney, but that it will educate people on his illness and in the process, help others, too.
“I realize I have to be my own advocate, I have to let people know what I am going through in order that they might say they want to donate,” he told the Catholic Herald in an interview at his home.
While Morales may consider himself his own advocate, he’s certainly not alone in his crusade. Supported by his girlfriend Andrea Burbey, communities of Nativity Jesuit Academy, where he was in the fourth graduating class, and St. Thomas More High School, and father-figure mentor, Bob Wisniewski, Morales is raising awareness of his illness as his community of family and friends rallies around him in prayer and raising funds.
Life has not been easy for Morales who was born in Mexico City, but left home by himself at age 9 and came to the United States. He spent time in California with his father but soon came to Milwaukee where his maternal grandmother was living. Later on his mother joined them.
He began school in the Milwaukee Public School system at Allen-Field Elementary, but as he describes it, “about a year later, basically Nativity entered my life.” He had heard a pitch about the school and told his grandmother that’s where he’d like to go.
Not only was the school a great place for him academically, he explained, but its summer camps and extracurriculars opened up a whole new world for him. It also was through Nativity that he was introduced to perhaps the single most influential person in his life: Wisniewski.
Mentor has become father figure
About 16 years ago, Wisniewski, president and CEO of Trade Press Media Group, was asked by a friend if he’d be willing to mentor a young graduate of Nativity Jesuit Academy as part of a program that matched the graduates with mentors through their four years of high school.
Wisniewski agreed, he explained in an interview with the Catholic Herald at his northwest side office, but he had concerns. Not being a father, he worried about having no experience with teenage boys, but he said after some discernment, he and his wife, Rebecca agreed he would become a mentor.
Wisniewski’s early impressions of Morales, then a student at St. Thomas More High School, were of a shy, respectful young man who was living with his mother, stepfather and three sisters.
“Since he was so shy, at times it was difficult to get more than a couple words out of him, but he was always a very nice young guy,” recalled Wisniewski.
On Morales’s part, he was familiar with the mentoring program through Nativity, but he initially said it “was weird that someone would want to help me, why did he want to be there?”
Wisniewski’s phone calls and conversations began to have a positive effect on him, said Morales.
His presence was especially welcome, said Morales as St. Thomas More was “a huge change and a culture shock,” he admitted. Coming from a school that was entirely Hispanic, he was now one of less than 10, he said. Formerly an avid soccer player, he was invited by the cross country coaches to try their sport.
The transition was challenging, but again he looks back on it as a life-changing move.
Wisniewski attended all of his cross country meets, but probably the move that cemented his relationship with Wisniewski was during his freshman year during the state tournament in Wisconsin Rapids.
“We were warming up, running around and I see him coming down the hill,” Morales said. “I couldn’t believe he drove all those hours to see a 20 minute race.”
Describing Wisniewski as “the most constant person in his life,” Morales said he’s the person he turns to for advice, for problems that arise, “he’s become a father figure to me.”
“Originally it was supposed to be a four-year thing,” Morales said of the mentor relationship, “but we had built a great relationship and he stayed on.”
Tough love pays off
After he graduated high school in 2004, Morales worked in construction for a bit, but admitted “he was not being smart with his money.”
With the help of financial and moral support of Wisniewski, Morales enrolled at MATC and did well enough to transfer to the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, but by his third semester, he was forced to withdraw.
As he explained, he was still in contact with Wisniewski, but he knew that his mentor was not happy with the direction of his life.
“I knew he wasn’t happy, he was disappointed in me and he was definitely a person I did not want to disappoint,” admitted Morales who said that during that period of time, he gave back to Nativity Jesuit by serving as a mentor himself to younger students during the school’s summer camps.
Finally, he decided to return to school with the determination that he’d improve his grades, repeat a few classes and work toward his degree.
“I called Bob and said, ‘I’d like to talk to you. I want you to hear me out and tell me what you think. I want to go back to school and I want your help,’” explained Morales. Understandably, he said, Wisniewski was skeptical, asking what would be different for him this time.
They came up with a contract where as long as he passed his classes, Wisniewski would support him.
“Jon and I always had a candid and open relationship, but he was taking classes he was not completing and I told him, ‘I want to support you, but there are other kids who could use the support, too. I said, ‘this is the deal. If you are serious about going back to school and doing the work, getting passing grades, my wife and I are more than happy to support you, but if you do not take this seriously, we will withdraw our support,” said Wisniewski.
It was tough love, admitted Wisniewski, who stood by proudly last May as Morales received his degree in communication – an area of study he chose because of his desire to educate people about his illness.
Stunned by kidney disease diagnosis
“I want to go out and give talks to people on why it’s important to take care of themselves and educate them more on kidney disease,” said Morales. “It’s a condition that often goes unnoticed.”
It blindsided Morales about seven years ago when he came home from work with lower back pain. He also felt extreme pressure on his chest and thought he might be experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, but that did not make sense for someone age 23.
As his symptoms worsened, he asked a cousin to drive him to the emergency department.
He didn’t do drugs, didn’t smoke, drank occasionally, but not excessively. What could be causing his problems?
Doctors told him it was a mild heart attack caused by the fact his kidneys were shutting down and recommended a change in diet and medication to regulate his blood pressure and predicted he’d eventually need dialysis – likely in his early to mid 30s.
That prediction came earlier than expected when it became necessary about three years ago.
He kept his condition a secret from many people – including his mother who he did not want to worry – but he shared it with Wisniewski.
“Bob knew and would go to doctor visits with me,” said Morales, who said he’s been a great support, making sure he is taking care of himself.
From anger at God to understanding his plan
Sometimes their conversations revolve around faith, said Wisniewski, a member of St. Jerome Parish, Oconomowoc.
“He’s had a very difficult life, but he’s not angry about it,” said Wisniewski of Morales. “Once he told me that he felt his kidney disease was probably a good thing in life as it really carved out a lot of compassion for him.”
They often talk about God, noted Wisniewski, and they’ve attended Mass together.
“We talk about God and the presence of God in life, that he has a plan for us and we don’t always understand what that plan is. Jon really understands that what happened to him is part of the formation process and God’s got great things in store for him,” said Wisniewski.
His health crisis has challenged his faith, admitted Morales, who said that while he was raised Catholic, there was a period in his life “when I was not a huge believer. For a while I was angry at God. I stayed away from church, I stayed away from praying, everything about religion, I stayed away from.”
But he said that eventually he began to see things differently and began praying again and attends Mass at St. Matthew Parish, Oak Creek.
“One of the main things when I pray, I pray to the Virgin Mary a lot and I talk to her to intercede for me. Maria, you know what I need,” he said, adding, that while he doesn’t feel his faith is where he wants it to be, “it’s a lot stronger than it was before.”
“One of my goals, once I have the transplant is to go home (to Mexico City) and fulfill a promise I made to the Virgin Mary – basically, it’s me running from my hometown to the church where she appeared. I think it’s about 15 miles, to thank her,” he said.
In recent weeks, Morales has stepped up his communication efforts in getting the word out about End Stage Renal Disease by posting several videos on the internet sharing his story and the need for kidney donors. He also did several interviews with media in the last couple years, including Telemundo, to educate others and even used his car as a billboard of sorts last spring, by writing, “Hero Wanted. Need a Kidney. O+ blood type,” on the back window of his car.
Classmates from Nativity Jesuit held a prayer service and fundraiser to support him and “Kidney Transplant for Morales,” a GofundMe page set up by his girlfriend, Burbey, has raised more than $11,000.
“It’s important that people know about my condition,” said Morales, but he stressed, “I’m not looking for a handout. I’m looking for that second chance, looking to keep a semi-normal lifestyle, a life away from a machine. I want to be able to fulfill my goals and dreams and do something with my life.”
As he waits and hopes for a new kidney, Morales is a source of inspiration to those around him.
“He’s definitely motivational, seeing him go through what he does and to see his optimism, it’s incredible,” said his girlfriend, Burbey. “I don’t know if I’d be able to do that if I were in that situation.”
Calling Morales an “amazing young man,” Wisniewski pointed out that the meaning of his name, “Jonathan is ‘Gift from God.’ He has certainly been that gift for us and for all who know him.’”