‘It’s Only Temporary!’—My Life With Kidney Disease
I still remember that day in early January 1980 as if it were yesterday. My mother asked me to go to the store to buy a loaf of bread, but just as I was leaving the house, the phone rang. It was my doctor calling to give us the results of my lab tests. Suddenly, Mom burst into tears. Between sobs, she relayed the bad news to me. My kidneys were failing. I had one, at the most two, years of kidney function left. The doctor was right—one year later I was on dialysis.
I WAS born on May 20, 1961, the first of six children. When I was about six months old, my mother noticed blood in the urine in my diapers. After extensive tests, my condition was diagnosed as Alport’s syndrome, a rare congenital defect. For unknown reasons, males with the disease often suffer renal failure after a time. My parents and I were not told this, so I did not worry about kidney disease.
Then, in the summer of 1979, I noticed an ammonialike odor to my breath in the morning. I didn’t really pay much attention to it, but then I started feeling fatigued. I thought I was just out of shape, so I shrugged it off. In December I had my annual checkup, and in January I got the telephone call mentioned above.
As I drove to the store—after all, my mother still needed the bread—I was in shock. I couldn’t believe that this was happening to me. “I’m only 18 years old!” I cried. I pulled over and stopped. The enormity of what was happening was beginning to dawn on me.
As I sat there at the side of the road, I began to weep. With tears running down my face, I blurted out: “Why me, God? Why me? Please don’t let my kidneys fail!”
As the months of 1980 went by, I felt sicker and sicker; and my prayers became more desperate and tearful. By the end of the year, I was passing out and had frequent vomiting spells due to the buildup of waste toxins in my blood, which my failing kidneys were not filtering out. In November I went on one last camping trip with some friends. But I was so sick that I just sat in the car the whole weekend, shivering. I could not keep warm, no matter what I did. Finally, in January 1981, the inevitable happened—my kidneys completely failed. It was either start dialysis or die.
Life on Dialysis
A few months earlier, our family doctor had told me about a new type of dialysis that does not involve needles and that cleanses the blood inside the body. The process is known as peritoneal dialysis (PD). This immediately appealed to me, as I have a strong aversion to needles. The process had become a viable alternative for some dialysis patients.
Amazingly, our bodies have a membrane that can function like an artificial kidney. The peritoneum—a smooth, transparent membrane that forms a sac around the digestive organs—may be used as a filter to cleanse the blood. The inner side of this membrane lines a space called the peritoneal cavity. The peritoneum is like a deflated bag, sandwiched between the organs of the abdomen.
Here is how PD works: A special dialysis fluid is placed in the peritoneal cavity through a catheter (tube) that has been surgically implanted in the lower abdomen. The fluid contains dextrose, and by means of osmosis, waste products and extra fluid from the blood are pulled through the peritoneum into the dialysis fluid, which is within the peritoneal cavity. The waste products that would normally have been eliminated as urine are now in the dialysis fluid. Four times a day, you must perform an exchange—drain the used fluid and then fill the cavity with fresh fluid. An exchange takes about 45 minutes to complete. It’s sort of like an oil change—drain out the old and replace with the new to increase your mileage and help your body run smoothly!
In the beginning of January 1981, I had the necessary catheter implanted in my lower right side. Then, I went through two weeks of training on the procedure. If the process is not done properly, using strict aseptic technique, a person can develop peritonitis—a serious and potentially fatal infection of the peritoneum.
In the summer of 1981, about six months after I started PD, my parents got another phone call that was to have a profound impact on my life.
Shopping for a New Kidney
Since January 1981, I had been on the national list for a kidney transplant.a I hoped that with a transplant my life would go back to the way it had been. Little did I know what lay ahead!
A phone call in mid-August informed us that a donor had been found. When I got to the hospital, at about 10 p.m., blood samples were taken to make sure I was a suitable match for the transplant. The kidney was made available by the family of a young man who had died in an accident earlier that day.
Surgery was scheduled for the following morning. Before the operation could be performed, a major issue had to be addressed, as I am one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and my Bible-trained conscience will not permit me to accept a blood transfusion. (Acts 15:28, 29) That first night the anesthesiologist came to see me. He urged me to agree to have blood available in the operating room, just in case. I said no.
“What am I supposed to do if something goes wrong? Let you die?” he asked.
“Do whatever else you have to do, but no blood is to be given to me, no matter what.”
After he left, the surgeons came in. I discussed the same issue with them, and much to my relief, they agreed to operate without blood.
The three-and-a-half-hour operation went smoothly. The surgeon said that I lost very little blood. When I awoke in the recovery room, three things assaulted my senses—first hunger and thirst and then pain! But all of that faded into the background when I saw a bag on the floor, filling with a pinkish-yellow fluid. It was urine from my new kidney. I was finally putting out urine! When the catheter was removed from my bladder and I was able to urinate like anyone else, I was very happy.
My joy, however, was short-lived. Two days later I got depressing news—my new kidney was not working. I would have to resume dialysis in the hopes that it would give the new kidney time to kick in. I continued on dialysis for several weeks.
It was now mid-September, and I had been in the hospital nearly a month. The hospital was 50 miles [80 km] from my home, so it was difficult for my Christian brothers and sisters to visit me. I missed my congregation very much. I received tape recordings of the congregation meetings, but when I listened to them, I got all choked up. I spent many lonely hours talking to Jehovah God in prayer, asking him for the strength to keep on enduring. I didn’t know it then, but even more difficult tests lay ahead.
Not Afraid to Die
It had been six long weeks since the transplant, and by now it was painfully obvious that my body had rejected the kidney. My abdomen was swollen grotesquely; the doctors told me that the rejected kidney would have to come out. Again, the question of blood came up. The doctors explained that this time the surgery was even more serious, because my blood count was very low. I patiently but firmly explained my Bible-based stand, and they finally agreed to do the surgery without blood.b
After the surgery, things went downhill very fast. While I was in the recovery room, my lungs began to fill with fluid. After an entire night of intense dialysis, I was a little better. But two days later my lungs filled up again. Another night of dialysis followed. I do not remember much about that night, but I do remember my father by my side, saying: “One more breath, Lee! Come on. You can do it! One more breath. That’s it, keep breathing!” I was so tired, more tired than I had ever been. I just wanted it to be over and to wake up in God’s new world. I was not afraid to die.—Revelation 21:3, 4.
The next morning my condition was grave. My hematocrit, the measure of red blood cells in circulating blood, was down to 7.3—normal is more than 40! The doctors were not optimistic about my condition. They repeatedly tried to get me to accept a blood transfusion, which they said was vital to my recovery.
I was moved to an intensive care unit, and then my hematocrit dropped to 6.9. But with the help of my mother, my hematocrit slowly began to rise. In a blender at home, she made drinks out of foods high in iron and brought them to me. She even drank them with me to encourage me. A mother’s love for her children is a wonderful thing.
When I was released from the hospital in the middle of November, I had a hematocrit of 11. Early in 1987, I started taking EPO (erythropoietin), a synthetic hormone that stimulates the bone marrow to send fresh red blood cells into the bloodstream, and now my hematocrit is about 33.c
‘It’s Only Temporary, Lee!’
I went on to have other major surgeries in 1984, 1988, 1990, 1993, 1995, and 1996—all a result of my failed kidneys. During these many years of living with kidney disease, one thought that has helped sustain me is, ‘It’s only temporary.’ Whatever our problems, physical or otherwise, they will be corrected under God’s Kingdom in the coming new world. (Matthew 6:9, 10) Whenever I face a new challenge and start feeling down, I just tell myself, ‘It’s only temporary, Lee!’ and it helps me put things back into perspective.—Compare 2 Corinthians 4:17, 18.
The year 1986 held the biggest surprise for me—I got married. I had thought I would never get married. ‘Who would ever want to marry me?’ I had wondered. But then Kimberly came along. She saw the man I am on the inside, not the one wasting away on the outside. She saw, too, that my condition is only temporary.
On June 21, 1986, Kimberly and I were married in our local Kingdom Hall in Pleasanton, California. We have decided not to have any children, since my disease is hereditary. But perhaps this too is temporary. In God’s new world, we would like to have children if that is Jehovah’s will.
I have the privilege of serving as an elder in the Highland Oaks Congregation in California, and Kimberly serves as a full-time evangelizer. The ordeal in 1981 ravaged my body and left me with little stamina. Since then, my sister has developed a mild form of Alport’s syndrome, and two of my brothers, who have the disease, suffered renal failure and are on dialysis. My other two brothers are very healthy.
I continue on peritoneal dialysis, and I am grateful for the mobility it gives me. I look to the future with hope and confidence because, after all, the problems of today—including kidney disease—are only temporary.—As told by Lee Cordaway, who died before this article was printed.
Awake! does not recommend any particular method of medical treatment. This article is not meant to discourage other forms of treatment, such as hemodialysis. There are pros and cons to each method, and an individual must make his own conscientious decision about which method he will employ.
b For more information about performing major surgery without blood, see How Can Blood Save Your Life?, published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., pages 16-17.
[Diagram on page 13]
How peritoneal dialysis works
Loops of small intestine
Catheter (receives the clean solution; releases the old solution)
[Picture on page 12]
With my wife, Kimberly