Advocacy | Dialysis | Kidney disease | Patient stories | Transplant

From Dialysis Clinics to Capitol Hill

October 31, 2023, 12:08pm EDT

Erin Cabaluna (in the orange suit next to the person in a pink suit)

When Erin Hintz Cabaluna was a dietitian intern, she was sent to a dialysis unit in a hospital. Working with people on dialysis made Erin nervous because she was in charge of their bone management medication. Any miscalculations could accidentally hurt a patient. Then an opportunity at a local dialysis clinic opened up after Erin earned her degree. With more experience under her belt, she decided to go for it. 

Eleven years later, Erin is an incredible registered dietitian helping home and in-center hemodialysis patients live healthy fulfilling lives. Better still, this unexpected career path would lead Erin to meet her husband, John, who would help kickstart her NKF advocacy, volunteering, and fundraising odyssey.

Meeting and marrying the love of her life

While Erin was learning about dialysis diets during her internship, John was experiencing his own kidney journey. 

“In 2012, he was 25 years old and had hypertension or high blood pressure that he wasn’t aware of. He felt fine, working full-time as a mechanic and playing intramural sports with his buddies. Eventually, the auto dealership where he worked closed and he started looking for a new job,” Erin said. “A few months later, he got extremely ill.” 

John thought that he had the flu, but his sister, a nurse, thought otherwise. 

“She took John’s blood pressure, was shocked at how high it was, and rushed him to the ER,” said Erin. “Within 24 hours, he was diagnosed with kidney failure, had his catheter placed, and began hemodialysis.” 

While the diagnosis was a shock, John didn’t have to spend too much time on dialysis before the same sister stepped forward to donate a kidney. 

“His amazingly wonderful, generous, and loving sister immediately got tested as a kidney donor. She was as close to a perfect match as possible and donated a kidney to him,” Erin said. “It’s been almost a decade and both are doing well. She’s had two healthy, beautiful children since then. We are so grateful to her for giving him the gift of life.”

After the kidney transplant, John became a dialysis technician to support those who haven’t had a transplant yet. In 2015, John and Erin happened to meet while working at the dialysis center. 

“I was working at two clinics at the time with well over 100 patients so I had to come in on Saturday to keep up with charting. He worked weekends and would comment about how I shouldn’t come in on Saturdays,” said Erin. “We talked for a while before he invited me out to a Broadway show. The rest is history. We got married in 2018.”

Learn more about kidney transplantation.

Volunteering together

John had been involved with Kidney Walk since his kidney failure diagnosis. Once he and Erin got together, he suggested she tag along.

“I went to my first Kidney Walk as a participant with a few other dieticians,” Erin said. “I wanted to exercise while learning more about the event.”

Erin enjoyed walking with her friends and coworkers so much that she decided to dive into the world of volunteering. 

“We got involved with KEEP Healthy events, a community-based initiative where we educated the public about the kidneys and tested them for kidney disease. I worked at the blood pressure and BMI stations while John worked at the urine collection stand,” Erin said. “I presented kidney education and answered questions at local events and churches. We got involved with the local NKF office as part of their young professional board and helped put on their annual Kidney Ball. I also joined NKF’s Council on Renal Nutrition, which I am still a part of.”

Then COVID-19 hit and the in-person programs were put on hold. 

“All our volunteering fell apart but it was so much fun while it lasted. Asking for donations broke me out of my shell and helped me get over being shy,” Erin said. “I really miss those events and hope to get involved as they start up again.”

See all the ways you can volunteer or fundraise with NKF.

Making a difference by advocating 

While Erin and John no longer take part in many in-person fundraising or volunteering events, they haven’t stopped advocating.

“We went to the 2023 Patient Summit in Washington D.C. It was nerve-wracking to speak with members of Congress but NKF provided great training and all the talking points we needed,” said Erin. “I promoted The Living Donor Protection Act and other legislative priorities NKF is pushing. It felt amazing to be part of these efforts. ”

With a meeting at Capitol Hill under her belt, Erin decided to continue advocating in her home state of California. 

“I talked to one of Congressman Eric Swalwell's staffers, Ron Payne, virtually about the importance of kidney disease education, funding, and policy. I explained how important it was that we were at the same table as heart disease and cancer in terms of funding and research,” Erin said. “The next day we attended Congressman Swalwell’s annual walk and I met Ron in person. He spoke about our conversation with other people at the walk and seemed genuinely interested in pursuing what we talked about. It made me feel like I made a real difference.”

Do you want to make a difference in the lives of kidney patients, like Erin? Sign up to become a Voices for Kidney Health advocate today.

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