Monday, October 31, 2011

Tat's My Wife

WARNING: This blog entry may make tears flow from your eyes, clog your nose with mucus, and leave you honking and weeping like a blubbering idiot. At least, it did for me. You may be different. Just in case, you may wish to read this in a dark room by yourself. 

You would really like my wife, Karen. Practically everyone who knows her does. She is genuinely one of the sweetest people I have ever met, not to mention kind, funny, smart, spiritual and practical. Real pretty, too. It's as if God grabbed a golden ray of sunshine and placed it in her soul.

                                                                             This is Karen.

She is a mature, responsible woman who is just slightly older than 21, a longtime executive at the University of Illinois. Which is why her recent declaration shocked the pu-pu platter out of me.

"I want to get a tattoo," she announced.

"I beg your pardon," I replied, certain she must have said something about Hervé Villechaize on Fantasy Island.

"I'm going to get a tattoo." She went on to explain that she'd secretly always wanted one and decided the time had come today.

"But what kind of design do you have in mind?" asked I.

You may remember back in June when I was in Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis and minutes away from receiving a kidney transplant but got false-alarmed instead? (If you don't, and want to experience that heartwarming feeling for yourself, you can read the blog entry here.) At that time, our 11-year-old, Madison (who now, thanks to adoption, is also my sister-in-law), took it upon herself to create a work of art to brighten my hospital room, complete with an appropriate Bible verse:

The verse is Psalm 73:26. It reads, "My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart. He is mine forever."

We all were moved by Maddie's gesture, but apparently no one was more affected than Karen.

"I want that Bible verse on my wrist," Karen said, "with a drawing of a small kidney above it."

"The whole verse?" I asked, incredulous.

"No, silly. Just the book and the chapter."

"Wow," I replied. "Maddie's drawing meant that much to you?"

Karen's eyes glistened, with that look that says, "You don't get it, do you?"

"I've always wanted a tattoo," she said softly. "There's just never been anything in my life so important to me that I wanted it on my body permanently."

Aw, shucks.

After a bit of research, Karen decided to have the deed performed at the 217 Tattoo Co. next to the U of I campus. (After all, what better place to get your first tattoo these days than near a university?) I didn't get the sense that her tattoo artist was a Biblical scholar, but he was very kind and understanding.

I had planned to take photos of the inking as it was unfolding, but I found myself just holding her other hand during the process, expressing concern and offering support. "Does it hurt? Does it hurt?" I kept asking. She kept assuring me that she was doing fine, Karen came through the affair like a tattoo veteran – better than I did, in fact.

And here is the result:

Karen and the artist debated tiny details, like whether it should be "Psalm" or Ps." (more work, less confusion), or if there should be a line through the "7". But the finished product seemed to delight everyone involved, no one more than Karen.

Now that it's had some time to settle in, some people have guessed the drawing is a little bean, even a small brown penis. But Karen and I know better. And long after I finally receive my kidney transplant, we will have a special bond to share for all time.

Oh, what a lucky man I am.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Happy Happy, Joy Joy

As some of you may know, I am proud to serve as Contributing Editor for Live Now: Rethink Kidney Disease, the website hosted by Baxter Healthcare Worldwide urging people afflicted with CKD (Chronic Kidney Disease) and ESRD (End Stage Renal Disease) to reclaim life on their own terms. (And coincidentally, to promote Baxter's in-home therapies like Peritoneal Dialysis – the system I use and advocate – and Home Hemodialysis.)

My latest essay for Live Now, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," has posted to the site. It suggests that maintaining a positive attitude in the face of a serious illness (or any other bad ju-ju, for that matter) can have a remarkably beneficial effect on one's overall health and outlook.

I'm pretty happy with the piece, but then again, I have a positive mental attitude. I hope you like it. I would repost it here in its entirety, but that kind of defeats the purpose of writing for the Baxter website in the first place. (Besides, they pay me.)

So here's a link to the article:

Please do me a favor: Click to the page at least 50-100 times, even if you only read it once, so the people at Baxter will think I'm a wildly popular writer.

Thank you. Be happy.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On the Kidney Kampaign

Just finished a big week on the kidney beat. On Tuesday I was in Waukegan, Ill., home of Baxter Healthcare, where I sit on the company's Patient Advisory Committee team (PACt), to attend one of our quarterly meetings. Then, as luck and good scheduling would have it, on Thursday I stopped in Chicago while on my way home to Champaign to make a presentation to the board of directors for the National Kidney Foundation of Illinois (NKFI).

Even more good timing: Karen, my angel of mercy, happened to have business in Chicago at the same time. So we used the once-grand, now-scruffy Blackstone Hotel in the Loop as our home base for the week. It even allowed Karen the opportunity to join me for the NKFI appearance.

At the Baxter confab, representatives from the company's various renal divisions come to our committee (numbering about 20 on this occasion) to get our reaction to proposed new products, changes to existing products, and to pick our brains about how we use Baxter's goods in the real world. These are scientists, corporate doctors and manufacturers who almost never come in contact with an actual breathing patient.

I've been sworn to secrecy about revealing details from these sessions under threat of slow, lingering death. The Baxter PR honchos get quite skittish knowing there's a former journalist in the room who has a blog read by people concerned with kidney matters. But I think I've been pretty good about keeping their confidences so far.

So far.

In this get-together we met Dr. Cory Sise, a nephrologist and leader on Baxter's medical team, who had her worst fear confirmed by the PACt people: Those product information sheets she and her people spend hours revising and rewording so they're completely accurate and useful?

Nobody reads them.

For me, the keenest insights from these meetings come not from the Baxter executives but from my fellow patients. On this trip, I learned that some people, in order to warm their bags of manual dialysis solution before inserting the fluid into their abdomens, actually stick the bags in the microwave! Yow! I guess if it starts boiling, you should take it out, eh?

The recommended method is to lay the bags on a heating pad so that they warm slowly and thoroughly. Problem is, if you forget and leave them on too long, it can have the same effect as nuking them. Imagine molten lava roaring through a catheter and filling your innards. Burn, baby, burn.

Hearing the other patients' startling admissions prompted me to confess my own preferred means of bag warming: hot water. I go to the bathroom, fill the sink and submerge the bag for three minutes or so. Slow, even warmth. I've learned over the years that the dialysis solution doesn't need to be piping hot; it just needs to be warmer than I am. Inserting liquid inside you that's too cold can be just as painful as solution that's scorching: Yow!

I was afraid to tell any health care professional about the hot water before, for fear they wouldn't approve. These meetings can be so liberating!

The NKFI board of directors retreat (no campfire songs or s'mores, much to my chagrin) was staged in the magnificent Merchandise Mart, and I was invited to give my first-person saga of living with chronic kidney disease and dialysis. Many thanks to Kate O'Connor, CEO of the Foundation, for extending the invitation, and to communications director Anne Black for her gracious assistance on site.

This is a song-and-dance I've performed many times before, as you know, and that might have been the problem. I was not as good as I should have been with my presentation. I'm my own worst critic, of course, but I felt I've been much better in past appearances. However, I learned two important things from the experience.

One, even though it's my own story and I've told it countless times, there is no substitute for rehearsal. ("Excuse me, sir, how do I get to Carnegie Hall from here?" the tourist asked. "Practice, practice, practice," the native replied.) Because I was pulled out of the Baxter PACt meeting briefly Tuesday to share my dialysis "testimony" with new sales reps, I thought that single run-through would be sufficient. It wasn't. I didn't have a clear Point A-to-Point B monologue, and I don't think I articulated it well.

I was delighted that the first followup question in the Q&A portion of my presentation went to Karen. But I think that speaks volumes as to how effective I was that day.

I think I also may have had an internal distraction. The gentleman who preceded me at the NKFI retreat, Baxter renal economic consultant Joe Connor, gave a very long and complex fiscal analysis filled with PowerPoint charts and graphs. It elicited numerous questions from the board members, and it was impossible to judge how long his Q&A session might last.

That was a dilemma, because I had to go to the bathroom! And I was certain that the moment I slipped out to find one, Connor would end his remarks and I would be MIA. So I stayed in my seat, my knees locked tight. I have no doubt my bladder predicament affected my concentration.

So that's the second thing I learned on this journey: When you're getting ready to speak in public and your nerves are running high, go potty before you really need to!