Happy National Kidney Month and National Women’s Month!

NASA

Yes, March is National Kidney Month and National Women’s History Month. What do kidneys and women have in common, you ask? For starters, both are underappreciated. We can hope that someday we will get to a point where we don’t need to introduce people to integral aspects of our culture and our history (like Black History Month). For now, though, we clearly do need these reminders. Certainly the recent death of the brilliant NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson (remember “Hidden Figures”?) highlighted the ongoing need for both black and women’s history month.

Similarly, this month we highlight the critically important role that kidneys play in our bodies. Do you know what your kidney function is? You may think you know what women contribute to daily life, but do you know what kidneys do? It would be crucial enough if they just removed dangerous toxins from the blood, but they also regulate the amount of fluids in our body, maintain the salt content of those fluids, balance minerals, produce urine, promote bone health, and so much more.

I’ve had a healthy respect for kidneys ever since my son was in dialysis. For nearly 2 years, dialysis machines, doctors, nurses, and technicians did a masterful job of trying to approximate what healthy kidneys manage to do every day. Yet even with doing their damndest to get this juggling act all right, dialysis can achieve only about 20% of normal kidney function. One-fifth.

Like women, kidneys pull off much of their heroic daily work quietly, often without calling attention to themselves. That’s why when kidneys are starting to fail, we usually don’t notice. More than 30 million Americans have chronic kidney disease—meaning they’re gradually losing kidney function—and most of them don’t know it. It’s called “the silent killer” because people usually don’t feel sick (and often look fine) until it’s dangerously far along. I know of people who just had a routine screening at a health fair, or went to the ER for a broken arm, or just didn’t feel right—only to learn, to their shock, that their kidneys were failing significantly and they needed to start dialysis ASAP.

My son knew he had kidney disease ever since it was diagnosed following a strep infection when he was in college. He was otherwise healthy and was told to monitor the condition with routine blood tests, which he did, never showing or feeling any symptoms. It was only at a routine checkup soon after his college graduation that the tests showed a precipitous decline in his kidney function. Within a month he was having surgery to put in an access point for dialysis, in 3 months he was undergoing dialysis 3 days a week, and close to 2 years later, he was welcoming my left kidney into its new home. It’s lived there happily since 2006, by the way. (My right kidney is managing just fine without it.)

So, this month, please make an appointment to have your kidney function checked with a simple blood test. (And be sure to thank a woman every day!)