Vanessa Graham couldn't believe the news when doctors told her the kidneys in her body were failing. A dialysis technician for 20 years, she wondered how she never recognized her symptoms collectively as the disease she had helped patients fight for so long. "I was having constant, uncontrollable migraines from the high blood pressure- that sent me to the emergency room," Graham told the AFRO. "After numerous tests they told me that my kidneys were failing. I was devastated. Just the fact that I was actually a dialysis technician that ignored all of these small symptoms together … I was in shock."
She was in treatment for renal failure less than 18 months when she got the call. A 50-year-old man named Frank had been in a motorcycle accident. His death would give Graham a new life. The next day, May 3, 2012, she was on an operating table inside Washington D.C.'s Washington Hospital Center.
Though most recipients aren't given the names of their donors, a sibling overheard nurses talking about the transplant donor while speaking about Graham's case. Now retired, Graham said it's important to take note of any signs of kidney disease – from sleep apnea to headaches, uncontrollable blood pressure to not feeling well in general.
"Kidney disease is preventable, but you are at risk if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, hypertension, or a family history of obesity," said Clare Elliott, development coordinator with the National Kidney Foundation.
Elliot said the more than $300,000 raised from the 2014 Kidney Walk will help the Foundation afford more of the $200 emergency grants that provide financial assistance to patients by offsetting everything from groceries to electricity bills.
The money raised will also support more free screenings to help detect kidney failure.
"Our three pillars are awareness, prevention, and treatment. If you take the precautions – get your high blood pressure and diabetes checked and under control, then it is preventable."
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the kidneys are essential in filtering waste from the blood. Once the kidneys no longer function, the body suffers from kidney failure, also called renal failure. Once the kidneys have gone into failure a machine is needed to regularly filter the blood, this process is called dialysis. Estimates from the CDC put at least 20 million Americans of all ethnicities dealing with some grade of chronic kidney disease, with the chance of developing the condition spiking after the age of 50.
According to the CDC, roughly one out of every three adults with diabetes goes into renal failure. That number is one out of every five for adults with high blood pressure.
Information from the National Kidney Disease Education Program states that while only 13 percent of the United States is African American, 32 percent of all patients with kidney failure are from the Black community due to diabetes and hypertension.
According to the National Institutes of Health, a gene variation called APOL1 is found in 13-15 percent of African Americans. When compared to Caucasians with chronic kidney disease (CKD) or other African Americans without the variant, this type of gene doubles the chances of an African-American patient's kidney disease turning into kidney failure.
Though hope for a new kidney could mean years of waiting on a list, due to other factors such as blood type, for some help is as close as a mother, a brother, a family member sharing the same genetic make-up, or a friend willing to give up a matching kidney.
"The first thing I did was see if I was a compatible donor," said Marvin Guthrie, upon learning that his daughter, Tisha, was in need of a kidney. "I wanted to do it and I wasn't afraid or apprehensive at all – God destined me to do this for her."
Guthrie's struggle began in 2005 when she noticed that her entire body was swelling with fluid. She was also experiencing extreme fatigue – something the group fitness coach wasn't used to. She ended up on dialysis for 10 months, receiving four-hour treatments three times a week. "She went through so much trying to maintain without a transplant, each day she was getting weaker and weaker," Guthrie said, shortly before his daughter led hundreds of 2014 Kidney Walk participants in a Zumba-style warm up on May 4 at Camden Yards.
Guthrie told the AFRO that her body immediately responded to the surgery, and though she still has her ups and downs, overall she feels great. Aside from a few weeks of soreness through the recuperation stage, Guthrie's father likened the process of donating a kidney to "little more than a sprained ankle."