Alive! With the Help of a Kidney Machine
“YOU have 10 to 15 years to live.” That was the grim estimate my doctors gave me back in 1965. But it was no real surprise. I had been having trouble with my kidneys for nearly ten years. It was a problem that got progressively worse until I finally had renal (kidney) failure. Massive doses of antibiotics allayed the illness, but the doctors were less than optimistic about my future.
In spite of dire predictions, I decided to use my “last” years in God’s service. My husband, Bill, was a travelling overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses and at the time was supervising a large area, or district. In spite of failing health, I wanted to continue accompanying him; and that I did for the next ten years. But in 1975 I suffered complete kidney failure. By this time Bill was overseeing a somewhat smaller group of congregations, a circuit, located in Sheffield—the famous steel city. Fortunately Sheffield was also famed for its renal research. So when I was too ill to journey 160 miles (260 km) to a London hospital by ambulance, the renal consultant in Sheffield agreed to treat me.
By the time I got to the hospital, my body wastes had built up to such a point that I was vomiting constantly. To offset this, they passed tubes through my nostrils into my stomach and siphoned some of the poisons off. This procedure was repeated every half hour or so for days. Next came peritoneal dialysis. After giving me a local anesthetic, the doctors inserted a narrow plastic tube into my lower abdomen. Then by means of a Y piece, the tube was connected to two bags of dialysate hanging on a stand. The way it worked was simple. Gravity drained the fluid into my abdomen. There it remained for 20 minutes absorbing impurities from the blood. Then the two bags were lowered to the floor and the fluid was drained out. This cycle was repeated for 48 hours, and the whole process had to recur every week. Leaking fluid and a sodden bed added to the discomfort of this miserable process. But my body adapted to it, and I must confess it did me a great deal of good during the four months the treatment lasted.
Chained to a Machine?
Though peritoneal dialysis was helpful, eventually I would have to be connected with a kidney machine. This meant having two minor operations called fistula shunts—a process in which a vein is enlarged. This makes it easier to insert the needles used in kidney-machine treatment (haemodialysis). The first fistula shunt was not successful. The blood clotted. They tried again on the right arm, though, and it worked. So after four months in the hospital, I was moved to another in July of 1975. There I saw a kidney machine for the first time.
I think that this was one of the worst periods of my life. Looking at that machine made me realize for the first time how tied down I would be in the future. For the rest of my life, I would have to be on a machine three days a week for at least six hours a day, plus spend two hours preparing and cleaning up. In addition, I would never be able to leave the machine for long periods. After a life of freedom, being able to serve Jehovah God wherever I was needed, this seemed a terrible burden.
“You Will Have to Learn”
Haemodialysis is a fascinating process. First two needles are inserted into the veins. A peristaltic pump draws blood through one needle and several feet of connecting tube into an artificial kidney. This kidney does the actual cleansing of the blood. From there the blood passes through yet more plastic tubing to the second needle and thence back into the body. The kidney machine itself simply monitors the job.
The use of needles was, and still is, something quite difficult to endure. It is painful and sometimes takes several attempts. This is because the needle must go along a vein, threading it, as it were, and not through it. When this does happen, blood escapes, filling the surrounding tissue and causing a painful swelling, or bump. Then there were the problems of adjusting mentally and physically to the routine.
The machine seemed to me to be so complicated that I thought I could never master it. That and the needle problems distressed me to the point of tears. But a nurse said, “You will have to learn to use it, otherwise you will die.”
“Well,” I said, “there are things that are worse than dying. Death holds no terrors for me.”
“All right,” she then said. “Let’s look at it from another point of view. In your work you do a good deal to help people. Well, people need that kind of help, so think of them and the work you can do.” That set me to thinking.
Something else greatly encouraged me. When I arrived at the hospital, the visiting renal consultant said to the nurse: “You are aware, I suppose, that Mrs. Bull is one of Jehovah’s Witnesses? Well, make sure she is never given blood. We don’t want anyone coming around waving bottles of blood. Make sure it is written in her notes.”
Setting Up a Home
Because I was so seriously ill, the need for me to settle in one place became imperative. But after years of travelling, we had no home. Renting a house seemed nearly impossible, especially since for years we had never stayed anywhere for more than a few days at a time. Furthermore, we did not have the wherewithal to furnish a home. Nonetheless, while I lay in the hospital, my husband, Bill, set about to try to find somewhere to live. We thought about Jehovah’s promise never to forsake his servants.—Psalm 37:25, 26.
As it turned out, two other full-time ministers were invited to attend the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead (a school for missionaries). So just at the moment when we needed a place to stay, they moved out, and the house was rented to us. Now we had the problem of furnishing it.
From all over the country came money and gifts. For example, when a much needed secondhand furniture set became available at the moderate price of £155 (then $310, U.S.), we bought it. This left us penniless. The next morning a letter arrived from a Christian sister whom we did not know and who knew nothing of our purchase. The letter contained a cheque for £150 (then $300, U.S.)!
After our home was set up, I came out of the hospital but returned weekly for four months of peritoneal dialysis. More than 500 get-well cards and letters arrived from all over the country, telling of prayers for my well-being. Feeling more or less helpless myself, the knowledge of these prayers gave me infinite comfort. During all this time, Bill was continuing to serve congregations in his circuit. However, he eventually had to make the decision to take up secular work to meet our commitments. He therefore became a chimney sweep.
Dialysis at Home
Shortly after settling down in our new home, we received and installed a modern technological wonder: the home kidney machine. It is only 48 inches (122 cm) high by 27 inches (69 cm) square. It monitors temperature, flow of blood, and the mixing of the dialysate fluid with water, the process by which the impurities are absorbed from the blood. A series of alarms covering these and other features make it a virtually fail-safe machine. Nevertheless, operating it imposes some real restrictions upon Bill and me. At that time, Bill could work only two and a half days a week as he had to be present all the time I was on the machine. In recent years, however, two loving Christian sisters come on different days and look after me during dialysis. If my blood pressure drops too low I may get sick enough to faint. So while the machine is a blessing, operating it is an endurance test for all concerned. Three times a week, I have to go through this six-hour ordeal.
Eighteen months of treatment gradually won me back a measure of strength and a chance to engage in some Christian activities. Then in February of 1977 my abnormally enlarged left kidney started to bleed. Home dialysing became impossible and I returned to the hospital. I became worse, however, and the blood loss increased. All other treatments having failed, one final hope was placed before me—blood transfusions.
Death Withholds Its Hand
Sick and dying as I was, I rejected this proposition. I knew from my study of the Bible that this would be contrary to God’s law. (See Genesis 9:4; Acts 15:29.) But my blood count went down and down. I became increasingly sleepy. External bleeding stopped, but, internally, red cells were still dying. Then I dropped into a coma. In the four and a half days this lasted, the haemoglobin level sank to an unbelievably low 1.8 grams. Long before this nadir all hope had been abandoned. My family and friends were told that I could not last the night.
On the fifth day, though, I awoke, saw my husband and said, “Bill, may I have a drink of water, please?” I sat up and drank while Bill combed my hair. But then I lay down again and fell asleep. ‘This is the end,’ thought Bill. But it was really a turning point. To the surprise of the hospital staff, I began to get better. “A miracle!” they called it. I viewed it as a vindication of Jehovah’s Word and law.
A difficult period then commenced. I was very weak, could not walk, and suffered terrible depression. In a little while I was back home though. I saw myself as a permanent invalid, needing to be carried everywhere I went. Nevertheless, the haemoglobin count began to climb. At the end of September, I had the diseased kidney removed. By this time my haemoglobin had risen to 11.9 grams, and even after the operation it stood at an incredible 10.3! The surgeon remarked that of all the nephrectomies (kidney removals) he had performed, he had never spilt so little blood. Ten days later when I had the stitches removed my haemoglobin was 11.3—a very high figure for renal patients, many of whom receive regular blood transfusions.
Living With a Kidney Machine
Dependence upon a kidney machine means learning to live with many restrictions. Nevertheless, I can work about the house and cook. I also share regularly in preaching the good news of the Kingdom from house to house and attend all the congregation meetings. Although I can leave my home for only two or three days at a time (I must dialyse on the fourth day), I have even been able to attend circuit and national conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As to my diet, I have to avoid foods high in potassium and salt; not too much fruit, no chocolate, nuts, or dried fruit. I must keep to white bread and should eat cakes only if they are made with plain flour. Beverages are restricted to a little coffee or tea if it is weak. Chocolate-based drinks, wine, and beer are forbidden.
In spite of all of this, I feel that I am among the most blessed of women. Jehovah has shown me such loving care and oversight. I have a devoted husband who continues to help me in every way. Wonderful Christian brothers and sisters have also done so much to strengthen me through these many years. I also cannot speak too highly of the kindness received from the consultant doctors, surgeons, and hospital staff. More than once, new consultants and nurses have been told of how I nearly died through blood loss, refused transfusions, and yet now have a normal blood count.
I have learned that although death is an enemy, it is not an enemy to be feared. Though I have walked in the valley of deep shadow, I have never had to fear anything bad. (Psalm 23:4) Whether we live or whether we die, it is to Jehovah, for our life is in his hands. (Romans 14:8) ‘How can I repay Jehovah for all his benefits to me?’ I have often reflected. (Psalm 116:12) The gift of life is indeed precious, a gift I now enjoy because of the help of God, the loving dedication of skilled medical personnel—and the kidney machine.—As told by Dorothy Bull.
[Blurb on page 20]
All other treatments having failed, one final hope was placed before me—blood transfusions
[Blurb on page 20]
My family and friends were told that I could not last the night
[Blurb on page 21]
‘This is the end,’ thought Bill. But it was really a turning point
[Blurb on page 22]
I have learned that although death is an enemy, it is not an enemy to be feared
[Picture on page 19]
I have to be on the kidney machine three days a week for at least six hours a day, but I am alive