Man With 34-Year-Old Transplanted Kidney Shares Advice for National Kidney Month

03/31/2014 02:32 pm ET Updated May 31, 2014

Artist Michael Gaudet always thought his "ticket to immortality" would be as a monumental mural painter. But now, the Canadian thinks his legacy will have to do with kidney transplantation. He's a huge proponent of taking a proactive approach to kidney health since receiving a kidney from his brother, Steve, on Oct. 17, 1979.

"He's my hero," Gaudet said. "He's doing great after all these years -- he's thriving with his one kidney."

Gaudet is also thriving, even though transplanted kidneys from living donors typically last 15-20 years.

"Going on 35 years as a kidney transplant (recipient), I'm one of the longest lasting transplants on the planet right now," he said. "I'm one of the healthiest people I know."

That's not something he could say in his youth. When Gaudet was 19, he had end-stage kidney failure and didn't know it. His legs ached, he had rashes and headaches, and generally felt sick. But he said because the onset of symptoms was so gradual, and because the toxins in his body were giving him a bit of a "brain fog," he didn't realize he was so close to death.

"It's like a double-edged sword: You have your mental acuity being compromised at the same time as your health overall is being compromised, so you don't have the wherewithal to appreciate how sick you are," Gaudet said. "That's why it's so insidious."

Luckily, on his second day at a new job in Toronto cutting sails for boats, a co-worker told him he looked awful and needed to see a doctor. He took her advice, stumbled to a nearby hospital and within 30 minutes, the team was booking surgery to have an emergency shunt put in for dialysis, which he started the next day.

"There's no way I could have survived for two or three more days in that state," he said.

Because of Gaudet's experiences, he advocates for early detection of kidney disease and taking a proactive approach to health. Several years ago he started a peer-to-peer mentoring group on Facebook, Kidney Transplant Donors and Recipients, where anyone dealing with kidney disease can go for advice. The group has over 4,000 active members, and hundreds more join each week. Still, there are an estimated 26 million Americans with kidney disease but most don't realize it, according to the National Kidney Foundation.

Since March is celebrated in Canada as Kidney Health Month and in America as National Kidney Month, here are some tips from Gaudet on safeguarding kidney health (whether transplanted or not):

  • Have your blood tested at least once a year. "Early detection is your best fighting chance for recovery," he said. "With early detection you might even be able to fight it off with antibiotics or something if you have low level kidney failure, but if you don't even realize and put it off for years, then your kidneys can be just completely destroyed without knowing it."

  • Reduce red meat consumption. Last fall, Gaudet's kidney function began to plummet, and his doctors feared he'd need to start dialysis. But he stopped eating red meat (despite his love of roast beef and steak), and his creatinine (a marker of kidney function) improved 15 percent after about eight weeks and has stayed "out of the danger zone."
  • Stay hydrated. Gaudet said the key is to mimic an IV drip. "Every half-hour or so, have a few slugs of water and do it constantly ... Don't just go for five or six hours and guzzle water -- it's too hard on your system to have the flux in hydration."
  • Avoid stress. He said stress and high blood pressure can have a negative impact on kidneys, so it's important to keep positive. "And how do you do that? That's the million dollar question," he said.
  • Of course, always check with your doctor about prevention and treatment plans. For his part, Gaudet hopes the online kidney group -- which he calls an "organic worldwide community" -- will be his lasting legacy.

    "It's not going anywhere -- it's just growing every day. With or without me, it's going to carry on."