Saturday, January 23, 2010

You Like Me! You Really Like Me!

I think it's fair to suggest that very few people in the history of crappy kidneys have experienced a more enjoyable monthly checkup than I had last week at the DaVita clinic in Urbana-Champaign. Not only are all of my most important biological markers (phosphorus, calcium, protein and the like) at or above their recommended levels – "You are doing great," smiled my nephrologist, Dr. Attia – but my ego also received a major booster shot.

No fewer than five employees at the DaVita location, including the regional director herself, Ellie Suhl, took time out of their busy Friday to stop by my examination room to meet "the man who writes the blog" and compliment me on the quality of the work and for bringing attention to kidney disease and the outstanding work DaVita does in patient care. One woman said she especially giggled at my description of Diane King, my angelic dialysis nurse, as "Pollyanna," which meant that she not only really read the blog, she also had reader retention!

Now, this means two things:

(a) Many more people than you and me are reading these blatherings, to my great surprise, and

(b) I'm going to have to stop cussing in this blog and take it much more seriously every time out. After all, ladies are watching!

One nice added attraction of my appointment was being able to tell Ms. Suhl and several other people what I'm telling you now: DaVita's corporate marketing department in southern California somehow got wind of "Just Kidneying," and a delightful young woman interviewed me last week for a potential feature story in DaVita's national magazine!

Amazing. Life is a funny ol' dog, ain't it? Thirty-five years spent writing about other people in magazines national and local, and the first national article ever done on me comes as a result of renal failure.

Why, I could become the King of Kidneys! The Dean of Dialysis!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Moment In Time on a Winter's Night

A few weeks ago Karen and I had occasion to drive down the street and past the modern brick building where my DaVita dialysis clinic is housed. I didn't think my grumble was audible, but wives hear everything.

"What's wrong?" she asked.

"Oh, I don't know," I said, the softness of my voice surprising even me. "I'm just thinking about DaVita." More likely, I was thinking about the specter of yet another training session in my immediate future, this one to learn how to move from manual at-home Peritoneal Dialysis to a "cycler," an intricate, elaborate machine that will do much of the kidney assist work for me over an eight-hour period.

"What does DaVita mean to you?"

Long silence. "Weakness. Sickness. Total change of life. Mortality." Without even realizing it, I had lapsed into a ripple of depression.

"I choose not to think of it that way," Karen replied. "I prefer to think of information. And hope.

"And life."

She looked at me, the way your spouse looks at you when she or he realizes they've just created a memory. She reached over and touched my hand.

We drove on into the dark night, but the streetlights seemed to glow a little brighter.

Moving Around the Block

I have been away from this page, my beloved little kidney khronicle, for nearly a month now. There is no way I ever anticipated being gone so long. It wasn't because I grew lazy, or lost interest in the subject matter. I've just been battling through a severe case of writer's block.

Writers understand the effects of this horrible malady, and know that they are rarely pretty. No one can say exactly what brings on the dreadful condition, but in this case I have my suspicions.

A full week away from my trusty MacBook Pro last month for dialysis "boot camp" training at the DaVita clinic in Decatur, IL, was followed almost immediately by the holiday season. My sister-in-law, Julie, her husband Greg and their three kids (two children and a newborn – 2.5 kids?) came here for Christmas and, well, who wants to write when there are 10 other people frolicking merrily and celebrating family ties in your house?

Who could write, for that matter?

On top of that, the feature story I was writing on that incredibly nice Detroit philanthropist Doreen Hermelin, the lady who made me the tuna fish sandwich (see "Doreen," Nov. 6, and "Rootlessness," Nov. 9), wasn't going well. It turns out she didn't want a story written about her in the first place, so she called repeatedly to check on the status of the article and remind me to keep the focus on her charitable organizations, not on her personally. This is the reason you try to maintain a professional distance from the people you write about and try not to write about friends, so they aren't constantly looking over your shoulder chirping, "How's it going? How's it going?" This usually is not conducive to creative productivity.

Typically when an interview subject is reluctant to open up, my strategy is to talk to people who know the individual and have them say glowing things about him or her. But I also have a personal policy that if I talk to a person for a story, I must find a way to include a quote from them in the article; otherwise they may feel their time was wasted. In Mrs. Hermelin's case, there were so many people who had such interesting insights to share that trying to squeeze them all into the feature, along with background on Mrs. Hermelin as well as details about her charitable causes – oh, it all just became a hot mess.

Sweating over that story delayed my work on other deadline assignments, and in order to call yourself a professional writer you must actually finish an article every now and then and get paid for doing so. An old friend of mine, a writer of mystery novels, once told me the easiest way to overcome writer's block is "by applying ass to chair." In other words, just sit down and start writing something. Anything. But that's easier said than penned. Writing may be just like riding a bicycle, especially when you do it for a living, but even Lance Armstrong occasionally loses his brakes or blows a tire.

I remember a second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers named Steve Sax who eventually left baseball because he lost the ability to throw the ball 50 feet from his position to first base. It happens. Who knows why blocks form or why they disappear, but mine appears to have vanished as suddenly as it arrived. Good thing, too, because so much has happened since last we communicated and I've got a lot to share with you. Can't wait to start.

Nice to be back.