A long wait for a kidney, but man stays upbeat

Wesley Adams of Blackwood undergoes dialysis at DaVita Dialysis in Pennsauken. At age 26, he is one of the youngest dialysis patients in the United States.
Wesley Adams of Blackwood undergoes dialysis at DaVita Dialysis in Pennsauken. At age 26, he is one of the youngest dialysis patients in the United States. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 14, 2015

One hundred thousand Americans are waiting for kidney transplants. Wesley Adams is but one of them.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the 26-year-old Blackwood man rises at 3:30 a.m. By 4:10, he's on the Access Link van. By 4:45, he's at DaVita Dialysis in Pennsauken. By 5 a.m., he's ready for the first shift in the dialysis chair, where he will sit for four hours.

Adams is the youngest of 120 dialysis patients at DaVita, and among the youngest in America. If he does not receive a kidney transplant by August, he will have completed four years of dialysis.

For this, he wins no prize. Apart from his age, his story is common among the 450,000 people nationwide in kidney failure and on dialysis.

Adams graduated in 2006 from Pennsauken High School and was working for Canada Dry as a merchandise salesman, putting the product on store shelves, never knowing he had high blood pressure.

But in 2010, at age 21, he had trouble seeing. He got glasses, and they helped. But then he started vomiting every day. He went to the emergency room and was hospitalized for a week to get his blood pressure under control.

"They put me on blood-pressure meds," he said. "I only took that till the bottle ran out. I never knew I had to take that medicine for life."

Months later, he felt horrible in church, and his mother, Betty Gulledge, took him back to a hospital. His kidneys had failed. He needed dialysis.

Having never heard of it, he resisted at first. "I was ill-learned," he says now. "I was of a mindset my kidneys would kick back in at any time."

Not so.

Without dialysis, a doctor told him, "you won't last two or three months."

In 2013, his mother suffered a stroke caused by high blood pressure. She had worked for Sears, then Kmart, for 29 years, and was stricken while driving home from work. She died four days later.

Her heart beats now in another person's chest. Her kidneys were too damaged to donate.

Daunting statistics

The numbers are grim:

About  26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Two-thirds of those cases are caused by high blood pressure or diabetes.

As of last week, 101,000 Americans were waiting, like Adams, for a kidney transplant.

About 16,000 kidney transplants took place in the United States last year; 11,000 kidneys came from cadavers, 6,000 from living donors.

The average wait for a kidney is two to six years.

More than 92,000 people with kidney failure died in 2011, according to the kidney foundation. Many were waiting for transplants.

Medicare pays for dialysis - $86,592 per patient in 2013, according to the U.S. Renal Data System.

The average patient stays on dialysis five to 10 years before either transplant or death. Younger patients like Adams have continued 20 to 30 years.

Camaraderie

Adams has nine siblings. He won't ask those with children to donate a kidney, and others have health issues. "Most are simply not a match," said his sister Amoke, who describes her brother as "easily the life of the party," who "always has a smile and kind word for a stranger or close friend."

For the last few years, from Thanksgiving to Christmas, his father, Wilburn, has paid for a billboard at the Airport Circle in Pennsauken saying his son "is in dire need of a kidney transplant." He has gotten lots of calls, he said, but so far, no matches. Many asked how much he would pay; he gave those people the number for the Pennsauken police. Selling kidneys in the U.S. is illegal.

When he began dialysis, Wesley Adams felt his world crumbling, but now he is more upbeat, saying he sees it as somehow part of God's plan.

He had all but lost his sight, another consequence of high blood pressure and kidney failure, but his vision is better of late. He still can't drive, but Michelle Hicks, a DaVita social worker, is helping him look for a job. He wants to do housekeeping in a hospital, and interact a bit with patients.

"More people need to become organ donors," Hicks said.

She also is helping him line up volunteer work until he can get a job. He can earn up to $11,000 annually without losing his Social Security disability.

In his four-hour sessions, Adams watches movies, sleeps, or chats up staff. "He always comes in in a good mood," said Nancy Elliott, the facility supervisor.

He started out on third shift at 1:30 p.m., then switched to second shift at 9:30 a.m. Now, he prefers first shift - get in, get out, get home.

"We have a camaraderie," he said of patients. "You see them more than you see your family."

Sometimes, people get a transplant and stop coming. Other times, they die. "People I become friends with, it hurts my heart to see they pass away," he said.

Most socializing happens in the waiting area, on the way in or out.

He is particularly fond of a woman on second shift, in her 80s. On Monday, as he was waiting for his ride, he opened the door for her.

"Here you go, Miss Gloria," he said.

"Thank you, Wesley," she said.

He also held the door for another second-shift patient wearing a Dallas Cowboys jacket.

"Miss Diane, how you feel today?" he asked. "You know your Cowboys lost yesterday? You can't wear that jacket no more."

"Oh yes, I can," she replied, smiling.

"See you Wednesday," he said, smiling back, and headed into the waiting van for the ride home.


mvitez@phillynews.com

215-854-5639 @MichaelVitez

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