My future husband was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes in 1963. He was 20, and we were both college students at the time. I started giving Oscar daily injections then and continued until his death in 1991. I watched him suffer — and I do mean suffer — through many complications, including kidney failure, which required peritoneal dialysis, during which sterile fluid was introduced and drained from his body four times a day through a surgical opening in his stomach.
When that failed, hemodialysis ensued, a four-hour procedure during which blood was siphoned out of his body, cleansed and re-introduced through a stent surgically implanted in his arm. We experienced unbridled joy when he underwent a successful kidney transplant in 1991. Sadly, he died nine months later following complications from another surgery.
Dialysis was a living hell for years. It demanded daily — sometimes hourly — checks on weight, blood sugar and blood pressure, as well as extremely limited diets (both liquid and solid), a regimen that would defy most mortal understanding. I'll never forget when Oscar left his doctor's office one day and announced, "I have a new diet. I can eat all the air and grass I want."
A sense of humor helped us through the worst of the many ordeals, but exhaustion from the albatross routine overshadowed our daily life, drained our energy and turned dialysis days into abject drudgery. While I worked to support the family, Oscar was totally disabled. Friends helped drive him to dialysis, but a meal at the end of a long day of treatment would have been heavenly. Mama Ruth's, a local program, has become a godsend for local dialysis patients by filling that need. Andrea Mathews, a registered nurse who works for DaVita Dialysis in the Richmond area, explains.
"I've heard people say, ‘That must be the most horrible, sad place to work,' " Mathews says. "I can see why somebody would think that or a new patient might imagine, ‘It's the end of my quality of life, strapped to a dialysis chair just to stay alive.' Inside the unit, some of that does exist, but I love, love, love my patients and try to ease their problems. Some days it's like visiting with grandmas and grandpas all day. For the most part, it's a group of people who have come to terms with their situation and have decided to make the best of it."
Ruth Isbell, one of Mathews' former patients, made the best of it for herself and others by bringing meals to patients in the unit where she received dialysis for four years before she, too, underwent a successful kidney transplant at 47.
"Ruth loves to cook," Mathews says. "When she had the energy, she would bring in food to share. She knew some patients were just too exhausted to cook and others couldn't afford to buy a decent meal. One day some of the nurses and I were talking, and I said, ‘Wouldn't it be great if more people could have meals?' "
Isbell's initial kindness, coupled with Mathews' query and supplemented by countless volunteers, has resulted in the chartering of Mama Ruth's, a 501(c)3 organization that delivered almost 1,000 meals (including some to homes) prepared in a commercial kitchen at a local church in Richmond, thanks to work by nurses and many dedicated volunteers. Anthony Gill, another dialysis nurse, is the executive director of Mama Ruth's, and he and Mathews, the nonprofit's president, implement the all-volunteer program that Isbell inspired. (Isbell's immune system is compromised, so she cannot always volunteer.)
"Several dietitians and social workers have said that at any given time there are between 7 and 8 percent of patients [who] have a need for a meal, whether it's nutritional, financial or just emotional," Matthews says. "The home-cooked meal is wonderful, but sometimes they need love, too."
In 2011, there were 1,869 dialysis patients in Richmond and surrounding areas, serviced by 23 dialysis centers throughout the metropolitan Richmond area. All units do not receive meals, as there simply aren't enough funds to meet the demand. (One meal can be provided by pledging $7 at mamaruthsmeals.org.)
End-stage renal failure, necessitating the need for dialysis, can result from long-term diabetes or high blood pressure, as well as hereditary kidney diseases. While some patients endure years of dialysis before receiving a transplant, others may be too sick or too elderly to be considered for that surgery. A plethora of tests exist for potential donors, and sometimes, even for younger patients, dialysis cannot sustain their life until a donor is found.
"I cry just thinking about that part," Mathews says quietly. Until then, she's committed to easing her patients' suffering. "It's tough, but it's worth it."
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2012. All rights reserved.