Jen Anderson made a selfless decision when she was nineteen–she donated a kidney to her aunt. Many other young adults may have found organ donation frightening, but ...
Choosing Life: Finding New Purpose After End-Stage Kidney Disease Diagnosis
April 12, 2023, 10:08am EDT
Wilson Du's life took an unexpected turn when an unhealthy lifestyle caught up with him in his early thirties, and he was diagnosed with end-stage kidney disease. Despite ups and downs during his struggle to come to terms with the diagnosis, he is thriving today. Wilson's story, determination, and positive outlook are shining examples of how even a difficult diagnosis can lead to personal growth and a newfound sense of purpose.
Wilson's kidney disease diagnosis
"I was always a bigger guy but after I graduated college I worked at a sedentary job and I gained even more weight. I was living an unhealthy lifestyle so I never wanted to go to the doctors. I didn't want to hear that I needed to lose weight, stop smoking, and cut down on the alcohol," Wilson said. "When I was 34, I went to the emergency room with gout and expected to get a shot of cortisone. The doctor took my labs and told me I had kidney failure. I didn't really understand what that meant and asked how we fixed it."
The doctor sadly informed Wilson that it was too late to slow the progression–he would have to get a fistula and start dialysis soon.
Wilson moved home and struggled to accept his diagnosis: "As the days went by it began to really hit me–I may not survive this. There was a realization that everything I'd ever hoped for and dreamed of was tossed out the window. It was devastating."
Three months after his diagnosis, Wilson had yet to begin dialysis as his fistula was still in the process of healing. Unfortunately, his father suffered a stroke and Wilson and his mother rushed him to the hospital where he was stabilized. However, Wilson collapsed upon returning home a few hours later.
"I'd started swelling up and wasn't peeing as much. I gained almost 70 pounds in a couple of weeks and my back gave out that day. They admitted us in rooms next to each other and my mother was running between us, flipping out. It was a complete total nightmare for our household," Wilson said. "Later, people I haven't seen in a while would come visit him and then me. I learned later they were actually there to visit me because I may not survive. It was almost like they were coming to say their goodbyes."
Are you at risk of developing kidney disease? Take this one-minute quiz to find out.
Wilson stayed in the hospital for a few weeks, to the point where his muscles weakened from laying in bed for so long, before returning home.
"My life was suddenly confined to dialysis. I didn't have a social life anymore and my career was on hold. I couldn't even cheat by eating the foods I liked because my mom was cooking for me–following a kidney diet to the tee. I contemplated stopping dialysis," said Wilson. "My blood pressure was through the roof, my labs were all off, and I couldn't walk. I didn't want to live in a world where I couldn’t pursue my hopes and dreams. I didn't want people to take care of me all my life."
Through research, Wilson found that stopping dialysis would give him a foggy brain; he'd swell up and then get tired. One day, he'd go to sleep and wouldn't wake up.
"There was one moment where I was contemplating ending dialysis and decided I needed to make a choice right then–was I going to give up or fight? I chose life," said Wilson. "Once I made the decision I got out of my wheelchair and walked ten feet. It was the most painful walk I've ever done in my whole life but with every step, the physical pain masked the emotional."
This walk inspired Wilson to change his life completely. He went from walking a few feet to running and then biking.
"I was in kidney failure on dialysis, but it was the first time I felt empowered with my health like nothing was impossible. The weight just melted off until I was able to get on the kidney transplant weight list," Wilson said. "My first race was a 10k and it's one of the proudest moments of my life–I was the last person finishing and the volunteers were cleaning up but they still gave me my medal. That race led to many others."
Wilson's love of fitness inspired him to open a gym that focuses on helping people with chronic conditions get into better shape.
"The gym has grown beyond my wildest dreams. I'm currently working with a young man on dialysis who reminds me of myself. He's determined and doing the exact same thing I did which is to go as much as you can, stop, and rest. Then start over. It's great to pursue this newfound passion,” Wilson said. “This diagnosis made me the strongest person I never knew I could be."
Are you struggling with your kidney disease diagnosis? Talk to someone who’s been there through NKF Peers.
Receiving a kidney transplant
Over the next five years, Wilson worked at his gym, competed in races, and shared his story at National Kidney Foundation events to spread awareness of kidney disease and dialysis–That's where he met Amy Hewitt, the Executive Director of NKF Serving The West.
"Amy was at an NKF event I was speaking at and heard me talking about my desire to have a career and family. I think Amy was touched because she has a daughter around my age. She wanted to help me pursue my dreams," Wilson said. "She got tested to donate. That's true leadership from her. I couldn't believe someone I didn't know that well would consider donating a kidney to me."
Are you thinking about getting a transplant or interested in learning more about living donation? Join the Kidney Learning Center for interactive, self-paced videos delivered by transplant recipients and living donors. You’ll even see Wilson give nutrition tips in an After Transplant module!
Wilson had several potential donors fall through, so he tried not to get his hope up too high.
"I've had my heart broken many times with a kidney transplant. I tried not to get so invested in it emotionally but then I got a call saying everything was a go. Within two weeks I was in surgery for a paired transplant," said Wilson. "Two days after surgery it hit me like a ton of bricks–my identity as a dialysis patient was over. Now, I am a transplant recipient. It was scary but I was thrilled and so excited for the next chapter."
A week later, Amy went in for her surgery, and Wilson stayed at a nearby hotel to ensure she was okay and to spend time with the person who gave him his second chance at life.
"When I got home, I was all about recovery. I started by walking–back to where I was at the beginning of this journey. I walked on the same paths that I took when I was first diagnosed and it felt very symbolic," said Wilson. "Having a kidney transplant has changed the whole chemistry of my body. I react much better to nutrition and exercise. I'm back to training and seeing how far I can push my body while keeping my new kidney healthy. I want all patients to know that I wasn't an athlete before I started training. I was very unhealthy and if I can go from morbidly obese to living a completely healthy lifestyle, so can you. Take it slow and don't give up."
Does your center partner with the National Kidney Registry? Learn more about the different NKR programs, including which centers have paired donation, remote donation, advanced donation, and more.
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