Father’s Day is a time to remember and honor our fathers, grandfathers and other important father figures in our lives. There are so many wonderful lessons I have learned from my grandfather and father; however they also taught me a painful lesson about kidney disease.
Lesson #1: Looks are deceiving when it comes to kidney disease. My grandfather was a tall drink of water. A cowboy with steel blue eyes who always wore the same rugged outfit, which included a 10-gallon cowboy hat, a western shirt with pearl snaps, Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots and a belt with a big shiny western buckle. Everyone who knew him saw a healthy 86-year-old who worked diligently on his 80-acre ranch, tending to livestock and even building a cedar and barbed wire fence by himself in the scorching Texas summer heat. No one had any clue that he was suffering from chronic kidney disease (CKD).
Like so many other people living with kidney disease, my grandfather didn’t exhibit any signs of this chronic condition. That’s what is so scary about CKD and why it’s known as a silent killer – it attacks your body on the inside, often showing no outward signs or symptoms until it has progressed to advanced stages. Getting tested by your doctor is the only way to know for sure whether you are sick or healthy.
Lesson #2: Kidney disease can be a family affair so learn about your medical history. My dad took my grandfather to the doctor for a routine checkup and was shocked to learn that his father was suffering from Stage 4 CKD. The doctor explained that my grandfather’s kidney functioning had been reduced to 25 percent, and if his kidney function continued to decrease he would require dialysis. Unfortunately the news got even worse when the doctor advised that my father get tested because it can be hereditary.
Many wonderful characteristics and traits are passed down from generation to generation, but chronic conditions and hereditary diseases are not a welcome inheritance and not easy to discuss with family. While my dad gladly took responsibility of the land left to him by his father and spoke openly about his adventures growing up on the ranch, he was tight-lipped when it came to the other inheritance from his father, kidney disease.
I remember the moment I learned that kidney disease was a family affair. My dad and I were walking along the same gravel road he walked as a child lined with mesquite trees, cacti and Texas wildflowers, when he shared that life-changing piece of our family history with me. The news stopped me in my tracks because I knew that I, along with my siblings, was also at-risk for kidney disease.
It took my dad five years to tell his children about our family history of CKD, so I know from experience that discussing your family medical history can be difficult and there never seems to be a right time to bring it up. But remember, it can also have life-altering implications for better or for worse. I can’t ask my grandfather why he chose to keep the fact he had CKD a secret, but I am thankful that my father shared his family’s medical history with his children, so we can take preventative steps to stay healthy.
Lesson #3: Take action and get tested. It had been two years since I learned about my family’s history of CKD. I wish I could say that during that time my dad heeded the doctor’s advice and was tested for kidney disease, but I can’t. Although my dad continued to visit his family doctor annually, he put his kidney health on the back burner. During this time, my dad began to lovingly refer to me as “the squeaky wheel” because I continually checked in with him to see if he had his kidney function tested. In addition, I was tested for kidney disease at Kidney Action Day hosted by the American Kidney Fund, enlisted the help of my siblings to echo the importance of kidney health and leading a healthy lifestyle, and began a new family tradition of talking about medical history during Thanksgiving.
But the encouragement from the “squeaky wheel” and other family efforts were not enough to get my dad to take action. It took a painful experience with kidney stones last year to finally get his attention. Seven years after learning of his father’s CKD and his doctor’s encouragement to get tested, he was finally tested and learned he suffers from the same condition as his father.
Sadly, millions of Americans are living with the silent killer and never even know it. In fact, 9 out of 10 people in this country who have stage 3 CKD (moderately decreased kidney function) don’t know they have it. Don’t wait to until it’s too late – start the conversations now. You can start your path to a healthier, more aware life today by talking to your immediate and extended family about their health history, attending a Kidney Action Day and having a discussion with your doctor about checking your kidney function at your next well visit.
This Father’s Day, I hope you will remember the lessons I learned from my family and take steps to be a champion and “squeaky wheel” for your own family’s health.
Rhonda Horton lives in Washington, D.C., and has her kidneys checked every year.