Don’t let life’s curveballs strike you out

As a former chief hospital corpsman in the Navy, I didn’t expect to be on the receiving end of care. I was healthy my entire life—never in a million years did I think my kidneys would fail me, leaving my body desperately needing a transplant from a stranger. But these earth-shattering surprises did occur, not only to me, but to my husband as well.

Both my husband, Thom, and I dedicated our lives to the Navy, working on base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina for many years. Little did we know, toxic chemicals were being stored at a dump site not too far away on base. The chemicals were stored in metal containers that eventually eroded, causing them to leak into the groundwater we were washing our hands with on a daily basis. Years after Thom and I left the base, people began developing health issues that were later connected to the toxic chemicals everyone had been unknowingly exposed to for years.

People often say, “when it rains, it pours,” and for Thom and me, that phrase holds true when describing our lives over the past few years. In 2015, we were stunned when Thom received the news that he had permanent kidney damage. Thom was also in the medical field and lived a healthy lifestyle; how could he possibly have kidney disease? After receiving the news, he researched how to maintain a kidney-friendly diet and slow the progression of his kidney disease, which he did.

Just three years after Thom’s diagnosis, our world came crashing down when I was rushed to the hospital because I was not feeling well. Doctors informed me that my kidneys had failed, which meant I needed to start dialysis immediately. Again, I thought, how could I have kidney failure, I’m a medical professional, I live a healthy lifestyle and I take care of myself? In the blink of an eye, Thom and I went from a vibrant couple, living a very active lifestyle, to having little to no energy to complete simple tasks, like grocery shopping and doing laundry.
I was later told that my kidney failure was caused by multiple comorbidities, especially my diabetes. Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney disease, and in fact, 1 in 3 Americans with diabetes also has kidney disease. I thought I was educated on everything related to my health, so I felt blindsided and betrayed by my body when I suddenly had to attend dialysis treatments three days a week in order to survive. Thankfully, I was able to receive a kidney transplant just a couple months after starting dialysis, which isn’t common. To this day, my transplant is one of the biggest blessings in my life.

Going to dialysis treatments multiple times a week puts a great strain on your body, leaving patients weak and tired, which is something I would never wish upon anyone. But back to dialysis we went again—our kidney disease journey came full circle when Thom’s kidneys failed just five short months after I received my transplant. We felt absolutely defeated. It was like we couldn’t catch a break and every time we received an ounce of good news, we got trampled with a ton of bad news.

It’s still baffling to us that Thom’s kidneys failed because he took extremely good care of his kidneys through diet and exercise once he was diagnosed with kidney disease. It also was a shock that we both crashed into dialysis, and that I have a kidney transplant and Thom is still waiting for his, all within the last five years. It turns out, though, our situation is not all that shocking—1 in 6 veterans has kidney disease.

I can’t reiterate enough that you are and always will be your biggest advocate for your own health. It’s so important to educate yourself so you are as prepared as possible for the consistent curveballs life throws your way. Thom and I have relied heavily on resources from the American Kidney Fund (AKF) because they have so much information that is easy to understand, from guides on how to talk to your doctor to quizzes to help test your kidney knowledge. AKF’s Know Your Kidneys campaign is especially helpful for anyone facing kidney disease.  The campaign has tips to prevent kidney disease, ways to slow down the progression of existing kidney disease and information about diabetes and kidney disease specifically.

I was always relatively comfortable speaking with my doctors since I’ve been in the medical field most of my life, but I have been using AKF’s talk to your doctor guides to have conversations with my kidney care team about my kidneys. It wasn’t until I started having these conversations with my care team that I learned about the connection between kidney health, diabetes and high blood pressure (high blood pressure is the second leading cause of kidney disease). I researched endlessly and read through AKF’s website so I can advocate for my health, which is why I’m here today with a transplant and am getting better one day at a time. We must be active participants in our own health to ensure life’s curveballs don’t strike us out.

AKF’s Know Your Kidneys campaign is made possible by Janssen Inc., part of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson.

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About the Author(s)

Candie Gagne

Candie Gagne is a U.S. Navy veteran, kidney transplant recipient, diabetic and AKF Ambassador. She lives in the Pittsburgh area with her husband, Thom, who is also a veteran with kidney disease.

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