At the American Kidney Fund (AKF), we know there are millions of individuals across the country who devote countless hours caring for loved ones with kidney disease. We hear firsthand from advocates and friends about the amazing caregivers in their lives, and we continue to be inspired by their stories. That is why each year AKF honors one extraordinary caregiver with the “Caregiver of the Year” award at our national gala, The Hope Affair, in Washington, D.C. This year the Caregiver of the Year award was presented to Keith McDonald from Sayreville, New Jersey.
In recognition of November’s National Family Caregivers Month, Kidney Today sat down with Keith to learn about his experience as the primary caregiver for his wife, Rameika. Keith and Rameika have two children, Tiana and Xavier. Rameika is currently living with kidney failure and undergoes dialysis three times a week.
Kidney Today: How has kidney disease affected your life?
Keith: Before Rameika’s experience with kidney disease, I thought this condition only affected the elderly. I was shocked when my wife, who was only 30 years old at the time and pregnant with our first child, was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), which later led to kidney failure. Kidney disease not only impacts my wife, but it also impacts our entire family on a daily basis.
Kidney Today: How did your life change when you found out your wife had kidney disease?
Keith: Rameika and I felt like we were on a crash course of navigating the world of kidney disease, with one doctor appointment after another. Because the doctors were not able to point to a specific cause of why this happened to Rameika, we asked ourselves “why” a great deal. It was difficult to reconcile why this was happening, but I knew I had to keep Rameika calm and get her through this.
Kidney Today: When you found out you were going to take on the role of a caregiver, were there any resources you found helpful?
Keith: Interestingly, no— I didn’t seek any resources. I asked a lot of questions to doctors and medical professionals. I just did what came naturally. But everyone is different and I know that there are sources out there that can help.
Kidney Today: What have you learned about yourself through your experience as a caregiver for Rameika?
Keith: I don’t like the limelight, but after receiving the Caregiver of the Year award, I had a chance to glimpse how others see me. Taking on the role of caregiver for a spouse is not a sacrifice that everyone is willing to make, but I never thought twice about it. I was just fulfilling my role as a husband. I also learned that the things I thought I needed in my life were not as necessary as I believed them to be. In the short term it seems like a sacrifice to not have those things, but in the long term you gain perspective and realize what’s most important in your life.
Kidney Today: What advice do you have for other caregivers?
Keith: Remember to step back every once in awhile and take a breath. You can’t be an effective caregiver unless you take care of yourself. Also, learn how to listen to the people you are caring for and know when to listen to them. The most important thing you can do for them is help them maintain a sense of normalcy and independence because after a life-changing diagnosis, their “normal” no longer exists.
Kidney Today: How do you keep from getting burned out and make time for yourself?
Keith: I don’t really have an “off button”—I work two jobs in addition to taking care of my wife and family. But I have to remind myself to hit the reset button once in awhile. When I forget, my wife Rameika reminds me and keeps me in line. I try to take time out each day to do the things that I enjoy and would normally do if life wasn’t so hectic. I play with the kids, write short stories or squeeze in a video game.
Kidney Today: What will you remember most about your experience as Caregiver of the Year?
Keith: The American Kidney Fund and everyone at The Hope Affair were so welcoming. I was blown away that so many stopped to congratulate me. It was very special to me and my family that our story touched so many people. I walked away knowing other people were going through same thing, and there is a large community of support. While I was the only one who got the Caregiver of the Year award, there are millions of caregivers across the country who deserve recognition. I want them to know they’re not alone.