GREENFIELD — There are 26 million Americans affected by chronic kidney disease, and three Greenfield women are either recovering from a transplant or are anxiously awaiting surgeries.
Here, in honor of March as National Kidney Month, the Daily Reporter shares their stories.
Friends, colleagues recover together
The quip came right away.
“I said, ‘I’ll give you my kidney,’ and she said, ‘I don’t want your kidney.’”
The memory from last summer kept Julie Zell and Amy Kirkpatrick chuckling, but in reality, Zell couldn’t be more thankful for her friend — especially now as she’s recovering from Friday’s transplant.
The pair has known each other more than a dozen years, their children having gone to preschool together. Back in 2012, Kirkpatrick convinced Zell to join her and become a Greenfield-Central bus driver.
It was during a physical for the job that Zell learned she had polycystic kidney disease, a condition in which cycsts were forming on her kidney and shutting it down. Zell had no idea anything was wrong — sure, she was tired a lot, but the mother of three thought nothing of it.
Her kidney was functioning at 50 percent, and it declined quickly to only a 12 percent function. Knowing Zell would have to go on dialysis soon, Kirkpatrick stepped up for her friend and offered to donate her kidney.
It wasn’t an empty promise, either; Kirkpatrick ended up being a match for her friend.
A mother of three herself — their children are all the same age and go to the same Greenfield-Central schools together — Kirkpatrick couldn’t imagine what Zell was going through.
After a series of tests and scans, switching to a healthier lifestyle and even giving up her beloved Coke, Kirkpatrick figures it all will be well worth it.
“We have six sets of eyes watching,” Kirkpatrick said, referring to both sets of children. “They may not get it right now, but they will some day.”
Green ribbons in March are raising awareness of National Kidney Month, and the 26 million American adults that have chronic kidney disease. Like Zell, many don’t realize they have the disease until one of their kidneys is already deteriorating, because the symptoms are subtle, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
Symptoms of the disease include poor appetite, muscle cramps and lack of energy. When kidney disease progresses, it can eventually lead to kidney failure, which requires dialysis or a kidney transplant, according to the foundation.
As Kirkpatrick and Zell recover from Friday’s transplant, two other Greenfield women are awaiting their own.
Opening a new door
Nancy Staples has known about her kidney disease for years, but she never thought she’d have to have a kidney transplant.
Diagnosed with kidney disease at age 29, she’s been living with a low-functioning kidney for nearly 40 years. Dealing with chronic and at times intense pain for decades, she hoped and prayed her kidney function wouldn’t dip below the level where she would go on dialysis or need a transplant.
“But here in the last year, my numbers started dropping really quickly,” she said.
She found a donor with her sister-in-law, Indianapolis resident Kathy Staples.
“I cried. That’s all you can do because somebody is giving you something that they don’t have to do,” she said. “When I told Kathy, ‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘Don’t thank me because God’s given you this opportunity to go on.’”
Staples said a lot of people aren’t aware that when they donate a kidney, all of the medical tests and hospital bills are free.
“If somebody is afraid they can’t afford it, it costs nothing,” she said.
Staples’ transplant is scheduled for April 10, and she has a lot more to live for: her husband of 49 years, two daughters, eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
“When you have this disease as long as I’ve had — I was deep in thought I’d never have a transplant or dialysis — it was still a shock when it came to the point that it’s time,” she said. “Well, God’s closing this door, and he’s opening another one. He’s going to make it OK. I think it’s our faith that gets us through these things.”
Inspiring community support
Sarah Mullins is waiting.
Having already had a kidney transplant from her brother eight years ago, she thought her health problems were over.
But donor kidneys don’t last forever. Her brother’s stopped functioning unexpectedly after just seven years.
“They did a biopsy and tested everything and had no idea why it failed. I took my medicine every day, did what I was supposed to do, and they just don’t know why it failed,” she said.
Now on dialysis, Mullins is awaiting another chance. Her friends have spread the word through social media that she is in search of a donor.
“It just blew up,” Mullins said of the Support 4 Sarah Facebook page. “It went all the way from here to California where people were talking about it. People wanted to get tested.”
Mullins, 38, is hoping she’s found the perfect match for a summertime transplant, but nothing is solidified yet.
It’s the story of many waiting for a donor: “There’s been a lot of people who have been ‘matches,’ but there’s always something that’s fallen through within the last year,” she said. “There’s been something that’s wrong with them, or they think my body is going to attack the kidney.”
While not wanting to get her hopes up, Mullins is optimistic about the future and is thankful for the friends and strangers who have been willing to give.
“The community support is very helpful knowing that my name has spread all over and that strangers have gone to get tested,” she said. “That has been inspiring.”
Lessons in giving
Friday’s surgery made for a rough start to spring break for the bus-driving buddies.
As Kirkpatrick and Zell continue their hospital recoveries, they’ve been told to expect a role reversal of sorts: Kirkpatrick will become tired over the next few weeks and months, while Zell should begin rebounding as her new kidney begins functioning and her body heals.
Zell jokes that maybe as a thank-you gift, she’ll have to get Kirkpatrick a case of that Coke she’s been missing.
Greenfield-Central’s school bus drivers are rallying around Zell, organizing a dinner and silent auction next month at Maxwell Intermediate School to raise money for medical bills. Bus drivers try to take care of their own, but this is something beyond their means, said organizer Shari Amos.
“We’re hoping to get the community involved,” she said.
And while there won’t be any beach-side vacations for Zell and Kirkpatrick this spring break, Kirkpatrick said maybe her children are starting to understand why it all came to be.
“I had a talk with my oldest son,” Kirkpatrick said. “I said, ‘How would you feel if Mommy were in these shoes?’ I think he got it pretty quickly. That’s what it’s all about. It’s not just about Julie and her problems. The world’s about helping people.”
Zell smiles at her friend and puts it simply: “She’s got a good heart.”
Chronic kidney disease includes conditions that damage your kidneys. There are 26 million American adults with chronic kidney disease and millions of others at increased risk, according to the National Kidney Foundation. March is National Kidney Month, and while symptoms of kidney disease often don’t appear until it’s advanced, here’s what you need to be on the lookout for:
Muscle cramping at night
Swollen feet and ankles
Puffiness around the eyes
Dry, itchy skin
Need to urinate more often
Source: The National Kidney Foundation
Anyone can get chronic kidney disease at any age, but some people are more likely to others to develop kidney disease. You may have an increased risk if you:
Have high blood pressure
Have a family history of kidney failure
Belong to a population group that has a high rate of diabetes or blood pressure, such as African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asians, Pacific Islanders and American Indians.
Source: The National Kidney Foundation
Greenfield-Central bus drivers are holding a dinner and silent auction to help pay for medical expenses for Julie Zell, who is recovering from a kidney transplant.
When: 5 to 7:30 p.m. April 25
Where: Maxwell Intermediate School
For information or to be a corporate sponsor, call Shari Amos at 317-318-1200 or Karen McDonald at 317-498-1441.
To donate: The Julie Zell Kidney Fund has been set up at PNC Bank for community donations.