The doctor's office was various shades of brown. Tan cabinets. Chocolate vinyl chairs. Khaki walls. The only punctuation was a white paper strip covering the sandy brown exam table.
The doctor came in and leaned against the counter while reviewing my laboratory results. After a few silent moments he declared, "I think you're six months away from being added to the kidney transplant list."
I had been here before.
Not this office, but one like it. Not this doctor, but a similar tall gentleman in a white coat announcing that I will one day need a kidney transplant.
That was six years earlier. I was at the doctor's office to monitor the progression of chronic kidney disease in my solitary right kidney. This was the result of frequent kidney infections endured years earlier that created permanent kidney scaring. I knew that my kidney function was impaired, but I assumed that with a healthy lifestyle I could live well into old age with the 35-percent function I had at the time. No one had told me anything different, until this day.
The doctor patiently explained that a woman in her late twenties will not make it to her sixties with the function I had. I politely nodded, shook the doctor's hand and headed for my car.
Then I freaked out. All the way out.
In addition to my full-time job as a corporate analyst, I made googling kidney disease a second career. Every bruise, itch and cough was cause to jump online and see if I was careening toward kidney failure. I read about people whose disease progressed slowly for years and then overnight took a turn for the worse. I discovered a host of disturbing symptoms that arrive when your function is below 15 percent. I read about numerous complications and side effects of kidney replacement therapies (currently dialysis and transplant). I searched and searched until I was tired, out of breath and convinced I would need a transplant at some point in the next 12 months.
I vacillated between feeling numb and being overcome with worry. While I was externally punctual, productive and calm, internally, I spent six months in the fetal position.
I never thought to have a calm conversation with my doctor about what kidney failure actually meant. I never put a game plan together. Instead, I allowed myself to become victimized by a future that did not yet exist.
It eventually occurred to me that I was anxious about something that could be many years into the future. I decided to relax and push all thoughts of needing transplant to the back of my mind. Each time I felt fatigued or the urge to search the internet, I reminded myself that at that moment, I was still pretty healthy. My stress subsided, and life continued on as normal. Sometimes I even thought that I might never come to the day where I was six months away from the transplant list.
Yet, here I was. In the doctor's office with all of that brown.
However, this time I knew I had a choice.
I could repeat my past display of what not to do when you get a diagnosis, or I could go a different route.
Thankfully, I choose the latter.
I decided to focus all of my attention on what was in my control. Transplant or no transplant I couldn't guarantee that ending. What I could do was implement a plan that leveraged a healthy lifestyle to promote the best possible health outcome.
I went to the library and checked out books on managing kidney disease. I read about anti-inflammatory diets. I became vegan. I started a regular exercise routine. I meditated.
I found that when I put my energy toward healthy behaviors, I had less time and mental space for worry. I began to trust that things would work out well, even if that included a kidney transplant.
That was empowering.
Six months down the road, it was indeed time to be added to the national kidney transplant list. We are currently finalizing living donor plans. While my kidney function is declining, my body is handling this change exceptionally well. My proactive actions and lifestyle have helped me afford the luxury of avoiding dialysis and protecting the health I still have as we take this next step.
From my initial response of freaked out overwhelm, to my current response of focusing on what is in my control, I have learned two things. First, it is important to allow yourself to cry and feel the very natural emotions that accompany a new diagnosis. Go ahead and spend an evening wallowing in a pan of macaroni and cheese.
Second, initial fears can either become a way of life or they can be overcome. After the tears are dry and the cheesy goodness is digested, there is always a decision to make.
I hope you can avoid the initial response I had if you get a diagnosis. Head straight for taking control, and do your part to ensure a healthy resolution.
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