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A blood test from a company physical in 1993 was the first sign of kidney trouble for Willis. “The creatinine was high,” he remembered, “and the doctors said it was something that should be watched.” Willis wasn’t totally surprised by the news because he has close relatives with kidney disease. Still, he was feeling fine and had no symptoms of kidney disease at the time.
For the next 15 years, Willis and his doctors kept an eye on his kidney function. And, Willis did what he could to stay healthy. “I try to keep my blood pressure under control with medications,” he said. He also found a nephrologist and began to get check-ups.
Despite other medical problems, like 3 hip replacements, surgery for prostate cancer, and radiation therapy, Willis kept a positive attitude. “I know how to deal with adversity in health issues,” he said. “Knowing that I will never be completely well doesn’t bother me; I just do the best I can and say, ‘the heck with it.’”
That doesn’t mean that Willis was passive about his health, though. Just the opposite: he began to prepare for the day he would need dialysis by checking out his options.
First, Willis talked to more than one nephrologist about the kinds of dialysis, and the pros and cons of each. Willis’ own nephrologist suggested hemodialysis (HD) as a treatment of choice, and Willis had a fistula made for vascular access. Next, Willis visited both of the dialysis clinics in his hometown and looked them over. “A lot of the HD patients looked pretty sick to me,” Willis noted. He decided to think about peritoneal dialysis (PD) as an option.
He found a PD patient in town and talked with her about life on PD. Then, he talked to the PD training nurse at the local DaVita clinic. He liked her and he liked what he heard about PD. “No needles,” he said. “That was a biggie.” And, the PD patients he talked to “seemed to be doing all right.” Willis explored transplant as an option, too, but was turned down because of his cancer. In time, Willis convinced his nephrologist to support his choice of PD. “He had to,” Willis declared, “it’s my body!”
Willis started PD in May 2008 at the age of 66. He and wife Barbara trained together, but “she’s just a back-up,” he noted. He handles all aspects of his daily treatments himself, including set-up, connections, and managing the supplies. He keeps a 3-ring binder, with sections, to help stay organized.
Willis did manual PD exchanges for 2 months, then switched to a cycler. He dialyzes every night—and 2-3 times a week he interrupts his treatment to go square dancing! “I start about 6 pm and go on the cycler for 48 minutes to get the first fluid instilled, then I disconnect and go to the dance. The dances are over at about 9 pm, and then I go home, hook back up, and pick up where I left off. The machine waits for me to continue the treatment. It works pretty slick.”
Willis knows this is a bit unusual, but he has every step of the 9-hour treatment cycle timed to the minute. “I’m not going to change my life because I’m on this machine,” he explained.
Since he started PD, Willis feels better than he has in years. “I have quite a bit more energy,” he noted, “and, my blood numbers are better now than before.” He and his wife have taken several trips—to Oregon, Canada, and Arizona. “I made a kit and a list of what to take,” he said. “You can do the treatment anywhere you can find electricity. I did it in a state park once, with the electrical hook-up for a camper.”
“My wife and I still have lots of fun together after 43 years, and we plan to continue. The way I look at it, there are always things to look forward to and there are a few things I can’t do anymore, but I feel life is pretty good.”
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