Like many people with an uncontrolled chronic illness, Heard regularly ended up in the emergency room. And like more and more diabetics, his kidneys finally gave up.
Ask someone about diabetes, and eye problems or heart disease often come to mind. That's a correct association, but so is kidney failure.
The number of Americans diagnosed with the condition increased five times over the last three decades, a period that also saw a staggering rise in the number of Americans with diabetes.
Nearly half of all kidney failures in this country are now caused primarily by diabetes, according to a leading federal health agency.
"The link is incredibly powerful," says Richard C. Wender, professor of medicine at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. "Diabetes is the leading cause of kidney failure in the U.S."
The United States spends $34 billion a year on kidney failure. And the bulk, more than $20 billion a year, is covered by taxpayers through Medicare.
About 24 million people nationwide have diabetes, federal authorities say, and 57 million more are prediabetic - with elevated blood sugar levels that put them at high risk for the illness.
That means 81 million people, about one in four Americans, are either diabetics or potential ones.
For doctors, patients and policymakers, the health-care system's inability to stop preventable kidney damage from diabetes is frustrating. With good primary care, diabetes can usually be managed, or even spotted and stopped before it fully develops.
But the system doesn't pay well for preventive care. Many patients aren't educated on how to manage their conditions. Drugs can be expensive, and many people lack good access to care.
Even those who see their doctors regularly could get in trouble because good diabetes care takes time, a commodity that few caregivers have to spare.
Kidney failure can be caused by either major form of diabetes: Type 1, once known as juvenile onset, arises from the body's inability to make insulin, a key hormone that regulates the body's blood sugar levels.
Type 2, the more common, can develop at any age, and is caused by the body's failure to use insulin. Both can damage the kidneys and cause death if left untreated.
Each kidney is essentially a giant filter made up of roughly one million smaller filters known as glomeruli. These tufts of tiny vessels remove waste, but not nutrients, from blood.
Over many years, the excess sugar of diabetes harms the membranes of those vessels. An early sign of kidney disease is the appearance of tiny amounts of the protein albumin in the urine.
"If the filter is not working, you can lose a lot of the good stuff into your urine," says Mitchell A. Lazar, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Diabetes, Obesity and Metabolism.
At the same time, waste products and excess fluids build up in the bloodstream. So patients must get their blood cleaned artificially.
One way to accomplish this is to plug into a mechanical kidney.
Catheters are placed into vessels in the arm, enabling large amounts of the patient's blood to pass through the machine's filter and back into the body.
Patients must undergo this treatment, called hemodialysis, for at least several hours three times a week.
The treatment can cause many side effects, ranging from nausea and anemia to infections and sudden drops in blood pressure. Catheters also can become clogged, requiring multiple procedures to clear or make new openings elsewhere.
How can you avoid all this?
"The best strategy is to prevent diabetes - and the most effective way in the majority of patients," said Jefferson's Wender, "is to maintain a normal weight and exercise regularly."
A better diet may help, including lots of fruits and vegetables.
So can controlling high blood pressure, a common precursor to kidney problems.
Nearly everyone should get routine blood tests to catch diabetes before it damages the kidneys, said Jefferson endocrinologist Serge Jabbour.
It is not uncommon for people with Type 2 diabetes to live with the disease for five or 10 years before developing symptoms that cause them to seek treatment, Jabbour said. During that time, high blood sugar levels could be damaging the kidneys.
If the worst happens and your kidneys fail, a good attitude can still help.
"You need to stay happy, because the more upbeat you are, the better things go," said Heard, who has gotten care at Albert Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia. The challenges of living with the condition are "an everyday thing," he said.
Another patient, Ben Walters, 48, has been controlling his blood sugar to keep the disease from progressing.
Diagnosed with diabetes in 1990, the Center City resident has since developed diabetes-related nerve damage in his right knee - a condition known as Charcot's joint - that severely limits his ability to walk, forcing him to use a wheelchair.
Despite that and everything else - getting dialysis three times a week that often leaves him weary, and giving up a job he loved as deputy inspector general for the City of Philadelphia - Walters tries to remain focused.
"I think I have extended my life," he said last month after four hours of dialysis.
Contact staff writer Josh Goldstein at 215-854-4733 or firstname.lastname@example.org.