Imagine being given less than a year to live. Would your heart start racing? Would your eyes begin to fill with tears? Or would you try to embrace the remainder of your life to the fullest?
Dottie Clark was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease after going in for a knee replacement surgery. The pre-surgery tests revealed that her kidneys were functioning at an alarmingly low rate. Without a donor or undergoing regular dialysis, a nephrologist gave Clark six months to a year to live.
“I had always eaten healthily, exercised, and never smoked or drank, so this came as a huge surprise to me,” she said.
Clark has embraced a positive outlook on her disease and has decided to live each day as if it were her last. She doesn’t waste a moment feeling sorry for herself.
End-stage renal disease is when the kidneys permanently fail to function properly or refuse work at all.
To survive with a failed kidney or kidneys, a patient must undergo dialysis treatments to rid the body of toxins that urine usually would.
Clark undergoes hemodialysis three times a week at the Northeast Dialysis Center in Fayetteville, N.Y. Dialysis artificially replaces some kidney functions.
Clark is hooked up to a machine that filters her body's blood through a catheter that is attached to a needle inserted into her arm. The blood is filtered through the machine to clean out toxins and apply medication before being pumped back into the body through a second catheter. Each of Clark’s treatments lasts about four hours.
“I have always been squeamish, and they use big, I mean big, needles,” she said.
Clark says inserting and removing the large dialysis needles can be painful. Her left arm is constantly bruised a deep shade of black or blue from the punctures. She says her arm is very sore and tender and she often calls it looking like a “war zone.”
Clark has also developed atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes the patient’s heart to beat irregularly. Because of this condition, Clark sometimes gets very weak and faint during dialysis treatments. Twice, she has had to be transported to the emergency room during the treatment to be stabilized.
Dialysis is not the only thing inhibiting Clark from a life of complete freedom. She also must adhere to a strict renal diet to help reduce the workload on her kidneys.
The renal diet restricts her sodium, potassium, phosphorus and liquid intake. The limitations of this diet rule out eating many foods such as meats, cheeses, commercially processed foods, fruits and vegetables, etc.
“It is very important for a patient to restrict their sodium and fluid intake, because their kidneys have a hard time filtering it through their system,” said Elizabeth Shubsda, a registered dietician at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse. “The fluid can be retained in their legs or get into their lungs, it makes dialysis very difficult.”
Clark is not alone in her battle against end-stage renal disease. According to the American Society of Nephrology, more than 300,000 Americans are suffering from the disease. As of April 20, 2010, 107,046 people are on the organ donor waiting list according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
“Most people don’t know you can donate a kidney while you’re still alive,” Clark said. “Every person has two kidneys, and we only need one of them to live, so I like to say ‘Share your spare.’”
Clark has had many volunteers from her family, church and friends offer to donate a kidney to her. Unfortunately, a medical professional eliminated every volunteer for not being healthy enough, or having certain medical conditions in their family background.
One of Clark’s friends, Jessie Keating, started an awareness page on Facebook dedicated to trying to find her a kidney donor.
Clark said her search for a donor hasn’t been easy. Clark believes if she does receive a transplant, it will come from a deceased person.
“Just because someone has the same blood type as you, doesn’t necessarily mean they are a good donor match,” Clark said.
Her family and friends continue to explore every opportunity to help her.
"I have actually offered to donate a kidney to Dottie and was very disappointed when it was determined that I was not a match," friend Christine Klemperer said. "Dottie's journey has opened a new awareness for me and so many others about the importance and need for organ donors in our community. She is always smiling and this challenge has not dimmed the glow she radiates.
“How has her disease affected me? When similarly challenged, I hope to be just like her.”
Clark said the two biggest sources of strength during her struggle with this disease have been her faith in God and her husband of 55 years, Bob Clark.
“Bob has been my rock through this disease, just by loving me and doing special things for me,” she said.
Bob said he does little things to show his wife love and care every day, like holding her hand to help her keep her balance, driving her to medical appointments, or just leaving little notes around the house that say “I love you.”
According to Medscape, the average hemodialysis patient is hospitalized twice annually. The five-year survival rate of a person undergoing dialysis is 35 percent and decreases to 25 percent if they also have diabetes.
However, if the patient is older than 65 the mortality rates increase nearly six times. More than 69,000 dialysis patients enrolled in the end-stage renal program died in 2003.
“I believe God is with me all the time, and I draw strength from that,” Clark said. “I am thankful for all the blessings in my life every day. I wake up being thankful for another day of life.”