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A Cold But Successful Kidney Walk

This weekend my husband (Neil), son (Paul, my recipient), and I participated in our umpteenth National Kidney Foundation Triangle Kidney Walk [see my post on our long history of kidney walks], in Durham, NC. We were thrilled to learn that it set a record for donations: more than $97,000, with money still coming in. I think it broke another record, too–this may have been the coldest one (I know it’s the only time I’ve ever worn a winter coat over my Kidney Walk tee shirt).

Because of the damp chilly weather, the Walk organizers decided to shorten the route. What was supposed to be a 2.4-mile loop was reduced to just 1 mile total. True, my fingers were numb even before it was over, but we were still a bit disappointed.

It was long enough though to fall into conversation with a woman doing her first Walk. She’d driven all the way from the Pinehurst area because her mother had died recently from kidney failure, and she felt she had to do something. Like so many of us, she’d known very little about kidney disease before her mother started dialysis 4 years before. A few family members had planned to come along, she said with a little annoyance, but one by one they’d backed out. To her credit she came alone.

We talked about how little is known about kidney disease and how important it is to focus more attention on education in addition to research. We learned a startling statistic before the walk started: the U.S. National Institutes of Health, which is the main source of health-related research in this country, spends $568 per patient/year on cancer research. Kidney disease research accounts for…$29 per patient/year! I thought I’d heard it wrong and had to double-check before finalizing this post. And yet chronic kidney disease affects more than 30 million Americans. It’s yet another reminder of how important that new public awareness campaign is [see my previous post].

We saw lots of familiar smiling faces at the walk, many peering out from under wool hats. Friends from Donate Life NC/WELD (Women Encouraging Living Donation) were working a table this year. One of them, Dolores McGrath, a fellow NKF Kidney Advocacy Committee member, would be joining me for my first “official” visit to the state legislature this week. (More on that in my next post!)

That’s Dolores McGrath, center; and Deanna Kerrigan, Donate Life NC/WELD director, right.

Powerful Push to Promote Public Awareness of Kidney Disease

I’ve long been amazed and frustrated that most people know little about kidney disease and are unaware of the public health crisis: nearly 100,000 people in this country are waiting for a kidney from a deceased donor, and most will wait several years. For many, that’s too long, and thousands die every year because they didn’t receive a kidney in time.

That lack of information is widespread and includes educated, otherwise knowledgeable, well-informed people. Most of the 30 million-plus people in this country with chronic kidney disease don’t even know it yet, so if people paid more attention to their kidneys, and healthcare providers focused on early detection, kidney disease could be treated before it reached life-threatening kidney failure. Just think of the thousands—maybe millions—of lives that could be saved!

That’s why I was very excited to learn that the public awareness part of that amazing kidney health initiative [see July post] just got some real teeth. The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) is forming an important partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and American Society of Nephrologists (ASN) to promote the Public Awareness Initiative portion of what’s officially called Advancing American Kidney Health initiative. 

Did you know that one-third of Americans are at risk for developing kidney disease, not only because of diabetes and high blood pressure, but also cardiovascular disease, obesity, and family history of kidney disease? For certain groups, particularly African Americans and Hispanics, the risks are especially high: African Americans are three times as likely as whites, and Hispanics nearly 1.5 times as likely as non-Hispanics, to develop end stage kidney failure.

Even for people who are not at increased risk, my family knows well that our kidney health should never be taken for granted. If you read my son’s post on this site on the anniversary of his transplant, you may recall that he developed his kidney disease from a lingering strep infection. He was young and otherwise healthy, but 5 years later he was on dialysis, and 2 years after that, I gave him my kidney.     

The collaboration by HHS, NKF, and ASN will provide education about the risks of kidney disease and promote the early detection and management of kidney disease to improve patients’ results.

 For more information on the partnership, the Initiative, and kidney disease in general, read the complete announcement here.

Living Donor Registry and At-Home Test for Donors

Thinking about becoming a living kidney donor but wonder where to start? Maybe you know someone who needs a kidney and don’t know if you’d be a match. Wondering if there’s a central way nationally to register your interest and be guided through the process?  Surely there oughta be, but there really isn’t, although kidney registries perform some of that function (see Resources). That may be about to change.

Last week we heard about some exciting developments for both the nearly 100,000 kidney patients waiting for a transplant and people who want to start the process of becoming a living donor. Donate Life America and Fresenius Medical Care Foundation announced that they were teaming up to launch the first-ever national, universal registry of potential living kidney donors and to pilot a simple, at-home saliva-sample test for donors.

Did you know that little more than 20,000 kidney transplants happen in this country in a year (about two-thirds of them have a deceased donor)? That’s not much, and clearly, it’s not enough. There simply aren’t enough eligible deceased donors alone to fill the urgent need. Some patients languish on the waiting lists for 5 to 10 years. For many thousands of them, that’s dangerously long. As a result, each day about 16 people die in this country because they didn’t get a life-saving kidney in time. Every day.

Donate Life is better known for its important work in promoting deceased organ, eye, and tissue donation through the national organization and affiliated state programs. In recent years though, with the pressing need for transplants, it’s expanded its mission into living donation. In North Carolina, for example, I’m a proud member of my local Donate Life NC WELD (Women Encouraging Living Donation) branch and have written a few posts about it–see one example.

If the name Fresenius looks familiar, you probably know it as the huge private dialysis provider. But this is its separately operated nonprofit. The registry is scheduled to be up and running in spring 2020, and not many details have been released. The at-home tests, though, are supposed to be piloted in a few transplant centers between now and February 2020.

Periodically, there’s an outpouring of interest in kidney donation in response to an individual’s publicized need of a kidney. A family member walks around town wearing a sandwich-board or buys space on a billboard to spread their plea. Only some of the people who reach out get tested, and only one becomes the donor. More often than not, those other potential donors just vanish and with them the chance of saving another life. With the exception of some limited experiments, there has been no way to register these people and to capture and direct that interest.

Photo by Isaque Pereira on Pexels.com

To patients in kidney failure and donation advocates, that lack of direction is a particularly tragic waste of potential. This registry just might make all the difference.

The Top Kidney Donor Blogs

A short while ago I came across “The Top 30 Kidney Donor Blogs and Websites to Follow in 2019.” It lists individual personal blogs from donors and recipients, plus from major organizations (nearly half of the websites listed, in fact) like the National Kidney Foundation and the National Foundation for Transplants. Last week I noticed that there was a way to submit a blog, and I did. So, guess who’s #10 on the Top 30 list now?

Sure, the Top 30 is a marketing vehicle, but it’s also a convenient way to find interesting donor-related blogs; you can click to see their latest posts. Each listing also tells how frequent the blog posts are (mine average four a month), the number of Twitter followers (I have a modest but growing 280), and such.

This blog went live just several months ago, in March 2019. I’ve been delighted to see how well it’s been received. I didn’t know what to expect in terms of number of views and visitors, but I’m pretty pleased to have surpassed the 3,000-views mark (and more than 1,700 visitors).

 I’ve enjoyed sharing my living-donor experiences and recipient-family insights with you; helping to encourage living donation–not by proselytizing but by offering candid, clear, practical information; and fighting to protect the rights of kidney patients and donors (for example, check out these blog posts). I’m very glad that more people may find their way here.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Still Walking after All These Years

Another Triangle Kidney Walk date is approaching: Sunday, November 17, in nearby Durham, NC. My husband, son, and I (our daughter’s up in Brooklyn) will be there as usual. We’ve walked in more of them than I can count: three or four recent National Kidney Foundation walks starting at the present Durham Bulls Ballpark location; maybe another four or five NKF walks in Research Triangle Park, which wove through the campus of my long-time employer, RTI International, often a sponsor; plus a few Kidney Kare run/walks in Carrboro, NC, sponsored by the University of North Carolina Transplant Center.

Just a small sample of my collection of tee shirts from many years of Kidney Walks in North Carolina.

We’ve walked in blistering heat, when the water bottles the helpful volunteers were distributing were downright hot; in chilling cold, with our hoods up and gloved hands clutching thermoses; stepping gingerly over deep puddles, dripping wet as we shunned umbrellas (so far never in snow). Still, the events are usually fun and always inspiring. In the midst of the upbeat music, entertainment, and snacks, there are of course speeches, information, organizations with handouts (so excited that NC WELD–Women Encouraging Living Donation–will have a table this year!), and health screening booths.

I remember the middle-aged man who spoke to the gathered walkers before the start of the walk a couple of years ago. He described being at one such walk a few years before and deciding to do the screening. There he’d discovered to his shock that he had stage 4 kidney failure. That Kidney Walk saved his life: he began dialysis within a few months and was able to have a transplant a couple of years later.

It bears repeating: chronic kidney disease is a silent killer. Most of the more than 30 million people in this country who have it don’t know it because they don’t have symptoms yet—and may not until it’s too late. The transplant center and NKF have mobile units that do screenings around the state throughout the year. Education, screenings, and research all cost money.

That’s why we walk. Proudly wearing bibs that say DONOR (me), RECIPIENT (my son), or DONOR FAMILY (my husband), we chat with other walkers. We’ve met hopeful families of kidney patients desperately in need of a kidney, transplant recipients happily walking with a bounce in their step for the first time in years, patients who’ve been on dialysis for more than a decade and can never have a transplant because they have too many other serious health conditions–some are not strong enough for the walk but come out to volunteer and help raise funds for awareness, education, and research.

Please consider donating whatever you can or just share this post on social media or email it to your families and friends. Our team is called the Comeback Kidney, named after our nickname for the kidney I donated to my son more than 13 years ago. But whether or not you donate to our team, to the Kidney Walk in general, or to any kidney disease organization, please spread the word about the importance of kidney heath—and be sure to get your kidneys checked.

Just How Unlikely Is It for a Donor to Need a Transplant?

I just read a stunning statistic that was extremely reassuring for living donors, so I just had to pass it on. You may already know that living donors have less than a 1% chance of someday developing kidney failure themselves. Did you know that in the “unlikely event” that a living kidney donor ever needs a transplant themselves, they are given priority on the national transplant waiting lists? That would mean they could receive a kidney from a deceased donor in a matter of weeks or months, not years—thus, probably avoiding dialysis. That’s certainly comforting.

But “unlikely event” takes on a whole new meaning when you see this statistic: Of the 60,000 people who donated between 1998 and 2007, only 11 were added to the transplant list! Do the math, that’s about 0.02%–two-hundredths of 1%. And if you were part of a kidney swap or donor chain through the National Kidney Registry, you would receive priority to receive a living donor kidney. I’d say those are damn good odds.

DonorPlus, the App for Potential Living Donors

I’ve long thought that living donors are a special breed. Whether we live in Iowa or North Carolina, the United States or India, Australia or France, I fully believe we have more in common than what separates us. As I discovered so vividly at the Living Donor Rally at the Bean in Chicago last year, we have an extraordinary bond. We “get” one another on a level that transcends age, gender, race, country, or politics.

I was particularly reminded of that recently when I received an email from a living donor in Australia. Kaye Price, an enterprising living donor advocate, with whom I’d had just a couple of exchanges, was writing to check on my safety in the path of Hurricane Dorian. I was touched by her concern, but the funny thing is that I didn’t feel that she was a stranger. Like me, she’d turned her experience as a living donor (to her sister-in-law) into a mission. She founded a free app, DonorPlus (available through Google Play and the App Store), with another entrepreneur/living donor advocate, Patricia Hunt. Much like this website and my book with Betsy Crais, The Greatest Gift, their app “informs, supports, and empowers living donors.”

Although certain procedural specifics obviously vary by country, the basics are remarkably universal. DonorPlus guides the potential donor through the decision making and the preliminary interviews. It’s definitely applicable to potential donors in many countries. The website, DonorPlus.org, features donors’ stories and even a large selection of donor merchandise.

The app is in the early stages, but they’ll soon be releasing a more advanced version that includes an expense tracker and planning tools. In addition to practical information for potential donors, the app will connect people with previous donors to make a direct connection. Kaye and Patricia have big plans for it and would love to get input from people all over the world. They have succeeded in attracting investors in Australia and will be traveling to the States soon to meet with major donor groups and medical centers.

I hope we can connect while they’re here. Meeting fellow living donors and supporters always feels like meeting old friends.