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In Sickness and In Health: Darwin and Marlena’s Kidney Disease Journey

February 02, 2023, 8:58am EST

Darwin in hospital hooked up to ventilator.

Darwin and Marlena's almost three-decades-long marriage is no stranger to health challenges. They’ve gone through kidney failure, multiple transplants, and a brutal battle with COVID-19 that lasted half a year. How have they overcome these challenging circumstances? Marlena shares how their love and commitment to each other made all the difference.

A long history of kidney disease

Darwin has a family history of chronic kidney disease–his father and sister passed away from complications related to it, and his brother is currently receiving dialysis.

"I was diagnosed with kidney disease in 2002, but I was nervous to get a kidney transplant because my sister passed away from congestive heart failure shortly after receiving one. My wife and doctor told me to get a transplant, so I went on the list," said Darwin. "My first kidney was in 2009 and that lasted about three years before I had to go back on dialysis. I got my second transplant in March 2016."

Towards the end of 2021, Darwin's blood pressure increased, and his kidney function declined. The couple was preparing for his kidney to reject within the next year when Darwin caught COVID-19. 

Learn more about kidney disease and COVID-19.

Catching COVID-19

Marlena wearing personal protective equipment in hospital.

On January 14th, 2022, Marlena noticed that Darwin was constantly exhausted, sleeping nonstop, and unable to eat. 

"I became very uncomfortable seeing him in this state so I began to shake him and tell him to get up. I was finally able to wake him up but he just sat on the side of the bed and stared at the wall. I had the feeling that something was very wrong," said Marlena. "I told him we were going to the hospital but he's stubborn and refused. I called 911."

When the paramedics showed up, they were immediately concerned by Darwin's low oxygen level and rushed him to the hospital. 

"He went to a local hospital not far from our home where they confirmed he had COVID-19, pneumonia, and was in renal failure again," Marlena said. "They began emergency dialysis and explained that he needed to be moved to a larger hospital more equipped to care for him."

Darwin remained stable for two weeks until he suddenly didn’t recognize the love of his life.

"I asked the doctor if this was a side effect of COVID and he said no. He ran tests and found Darwin had a series of mini-strokes and a heart attack," Marlena said. "He was admitted to the ICU. After a couple of days they called in the middle of the night and told me that Darwin had stopped breathing and his heart stopped completely. He had to be resuscitated and put on a ventilator."

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A bumpy road to the recovery

Darwin in hospital with breathing tubes.

Despite the fear and stress, Marlena was by Darwin's side every step of the way.

"While he was there, I would bring in worship music and sing to him. I read to him and got his favorite lotions to massage his hands with. I tried to speak life back into him," Marlena said. "The doctor said me being there for him really helped."

Sadly, Marlena spent most of this challenging time without physical support from friends and family because COVID-19 hospital floors only allowed her to visit. 

"I'm a therapist, so I knew I had to put a self-care plan in place immediately. I made sure I was eating as healthy as possible and drinking a lot of fluids. I also asked my doctor for help sleeping," said Marlena. "Don't be afraid to ask for help and support–you can't pour out if you're empty."

Life went on like this for the next three months until Darwin was well enough to be removed from the ventilator and moved to a long-term care facility to begin recovery.

"I got a hotel nearby and sat with him daily. I saw him decline. Initially, he was able to talk with a voice box and was eating a little bit. On the 6th day, I got a call and they told me he was unresponsive," Marlena said. "He had a sepsis infection. Thankfully he was treated for a week and was able to go to a different long-term care facility."

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Going home, together

Darwin and Marlena hugging with Love sign behind them.

This time Darwin stayed for nine days before returning home to begin rehab, where he relearned how to talk, walk, and eat. It's been difficult, but Darwin has improved tremendously and is well on his way to getting back onto the kidney transplant list.

"It has been a challenge for us, but we believe in family and working together in sickness and health," said Marlena. Due to our faith and commitment to each other, we have had a beautiful, happy marriage. We love each other." 

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