When I was younger, February meant celebrating Valentine’s Day with cards, candy, family and friends. In high school, it meant finding the perfect movie to see with my sweetheart. These days, Valentine’s Day means so much more to me as I celebrate the day with my perfect match—husband and kidney donor, Derek.
A few years ago my kidneys failed as a result of focal segmental glomerulosclerosis and I was told I needed dialysis treatments or a kidney transplant in order to survive. My then-boyfriend and high school sweetheart, Derek, was very worried about my health, as he also had a history of kidney disease in his family. When he was younger, his uncle received a kidney donation from Derek’s aunt and he never forgot how his uncle’s health improved immediately after the transplant. As I was preparing to go on dialysis treatments, Derek spent two months quietly testing to see if he was a match to donate a kidney. I will never forget the day that Derek surprised with the news that he was a match and was donating one of his kidneys to me. Three years after Derek donated his kidney to me, we were married. His kidney was the most valuable “engagement ring” I could ever imagine.
There is no way I can ever thank Derek enough for the life-saving gift he has given to me. I decided to join the American Kidney Fund’s patient-advocacy network as a way to pay it forward and raise awareness for kidney disease among my family and community members.
Kidney disease affects an overwhelming number of Americans—about 31 million. Many people are unaware of the risk factors and the life-changing treatment options for kidney disease. Through recent conversations with people in my life, I’ve learned that the majority had no idea that diabetes and high blood pressure were the leading causes of kidney disease, and that having a family history of it can also put you at a higher risk for developing the chronic condition. What’s particularly alarming is that African-Americans are nearly four times more likely to develop kidney disease than Caucasians.
The month of February is a time to celebrate with the ones you love – but it can also be about educating them on health conditions they need to be aware of to ensure they are here to celebrate Valentine’s Day for years to come. Therefore, in February I make it my mission to talk to as many of my loved ones as possible about kidney disease.
Speaking with your loved ones about their health can be difficult to do, but the benefits can have an immense impact on one’s life. In many cases, people react defensively and try to quickly change the subject when you ask them about their health. Remember that the majority of people, especially family, don’t want to burden the people they love with their health problems and are not comfortable talking (or even thinking) about the possibility of being at risk for a chronic condition.
The key is to not be discouraged if there are a few bumps at the beginning of the conversation. Reinforcing that you are talking with them about their health because you love and care about them is a great way to get the conversation started. Be prepared to share facts and resources, but most importantly be ready to respond with plenty of patience and compassion as you address the subject.
Encourage your family to Pair Up and make healthy choices with you. You can start by making small changes, like preparing healthy meals and exercising together. Most importantly, don’t begin the health conversation and then abandon it. Continue to encourage your family and friends, and check in with them on their health. Preventing kidney disease is something that can be done, but the power of prevention doesn’t happen overnight. It’s the culmination of making the choice daily to live a healthy lifestyle.
I was very lucky to find my perfect match in a husband and kidney donor. I’m even luckier that we have made a commitment to lead a healthy life together and share our knowledge with others. Celebrate with your loved ones this Valentine’s Day by Pairing Up to fight kidney disease.
Denise Robinson of Washington, D.C., is a member of the American Kidney Fund’s Advocacy Network.