FREELAND — You’re never too old for a kidney.
That’s what doctors told Freeland resident Ivan Little when he went from being fit all of his life to suffering from kidney failure in the fall of last year.
Failure occurs when the kidneys are no longer able to provide waste removal functions for the body. Little is 79 and must visit the Davita Dialysis Center in Oak Harbor three times per week to stay alive.
He shares this routine with his old friend from Langley High School, Lloyd Furman, a former mayor of Langley, whose kidney failure happened over a period of eight years.
It came on unexpectedly for Little, who said the feeling of exhaustion kept him from his daily routine.
“I couldn’t do anything,” Little said. “I couldn’t mow the grass, I could barely walk. I was anemic and short of breath. It was awful. You have this feeling that you wish you would die because it would be easier,” he said.
After the renal failure was diagnosed and he started dialysis, Little said he started feeling “really good.”
But, although he and his good friend Furman are glad to have a life sustaining dialysis center on the island, they both hope to find a donated kidney. The only treatment options for kidney failure are dialysis or a kidney transplant.
“Everybody’s got two kidneys and one kidney is all you need,” Furman said. “If you’ve got two good kidneys then you can donate one. One kidney is adequate for life,” he added, though Furman admitted that he doesn’t quite know how one goes about asking someone for a kidney.
Furman and Little are well-versed in what it takes to receive a kidney from a donor. They are both on the waiting list at the University of Washington Medicine Kidney Care and Transplant Program, one of the best in the country. The program is part of the National Kidney Registry, the largest national living donor exchange program that includes a network of more than 20 institutions.
“You have to have a matching blood type and then there are five or six markers in the blood, and you have to match three or four of those,” Furman said.
Furman’s blood type is A+ and Little’s is type A, both common.
“I’ve been on that list for two years,” Furman said.
Furman had to wait a year to get on the list after having open heart surgery and a valve replacement.
“You can’t have had two major operations within a year of getting on the list,” Furman said.
There is a shorter waiting time for living donor kidney transplantation. However, patients being evaluated for living donor kidney transplantation are also placed on a transplant waiting list to provide additional options.
The university called Little twice for a transplant kidney. He keeps an overnight bag waiting by the door for that purpose.
“Both times they told him to stand by; that there was a kidney for him,” his wife Marilyn Little said, “And then they didn’t. The kidneys turned out not to be good both times,” she added.
“Well, Ivan is in wonderful shape now,” said Furman’s wife, also named Marilyn.
“If it weren’t for his kidneys he’d be fine,” Marilyn Little said.
Little smiles at this.
Little had his hope piqued before that, as well, when his daughter Leslie Breeden of Langley discovered she was a match with her dad for kidney donation.
“I already knew my blood type and the process at the University of Washington was very efficient and took about four to five hours in total,” Breeden said.
She said the Kidney Care and Transplant Program clinic had everything ready for her when she arrived. They drew her blood, gave her a kidney test, did a scan and some other tests.
“It’s all paid for,” Breeden said, “Including the ferry, gas, parking, lunch. They just gave me an American Express card and I went down for the tests at 8 a.m. and was out by 2 p.m.,” she said.
The process, from one’s initial inquiry to potentially being approved as a donor, takes approximately three to six months altogether, and depends on the required tests, the test results and the recipient’s status.
Unfortunately, Breeden had elevated diastolic blood pressure and was not allowed to donate.
“It was a let down for me; it really was,” she said, “but they don’t take any risks.”
“I cried because I just assumed I’d do it and we’d be done, and it was this great gift I could give my dad,” she added.
Breeden said she is encouraged by her father’s great attitude and is hopeful because he is high on the donor list.
Little takes it in stride and dialysis keeps him going.
“I don’t think people realize how common kidney failure is and it’s not something we ever thought about,” Marilyn Little said.
“Now that we’re dealing with it, we realize how many people have it. I think I heard that one in 10 people in the U.S. has kidney problems,” she added.
Dr. Chiajen Kuan is a nephrologist, a kidney care specialist, who works with the patients at Davita Dialysis Center. Kuan said that there are far more patients waiting for a transplant than there are available organs. There is a national list and a patient moves up toward the top depending on the waiting time after enlistment. The average waiting time for blood type A and O patients is about four years, he said, and much longer for blood type B and AB patients.
“The public can help relieve this medical need by signing up as organ donors,” Kuan said, but while they wait he’s thankful to be able to help his patients live an almost normal life.
“Dialysis is a tough and imperfect treatment, but it gives our patients the blessing of life, of time, in return. I have always felt blessed to take care of my dialysis patients during their journey through life,” Kuan said.
Both Little and Furman spoke highly of Kuan and said they are grateful for the five available chairs at the DaVita clinic and especially for the local para-transit van that brings them door to door from home to the center and back again.
DaVita Center director Kristina Olmsted said she is also grateful to the men and women drivers who go out of their way to accommodate patients’ needs, as well as to Oak Harbor Senior Services volunteers who help bring patients back and forth to their appointments.
“The ultimate goal here at DaVita is to ensure our patients have the best quality of life possible,” Olmsted said. “We try to do this by providing each patient with exceptional care to aid them in a long and healthy life.
To that end, in addition to the nephrologist, the center also employs skilled technicians, registered nurses, a social worker and an on-site dietician for the patients.
The support system at DaVita and at home is important to both Little and Furman. The strict diet they must follow is vital to staying alive and they are indebted to their wives for their attention. People unfamiliar with kidney failure may not know that even certain healthy foods can be hazardous to the patient, such as bananas, potatoes, red beans, spinach and tomatoes, which are hard for the kidney to filter. These patients also limit their fluid intake, such as one lady on the bus who Little said can have only one-third cup of water or other fluid every three days.
“Our wives take good care of us,” Little said, and Furman agreed.
“I couldn’t do it without Marilyn,” Furman said.
The waiting game goes on for these gentlemen, who remain close to home and to the dialysis center out of necessity, preventing them from visiting off-island extended family. It’s a dedication that means survival.
“None of us would last very long without dialysis,” Little said. “Some who get tired of the process and quit, only last a few days.”
This was true of one gentleman with whom Little rode the bus everyday to the center.
“He quit on Friday and on Monday he died,” Little said.