Take a minute and look around your community. Think about your friends, family, neighbors and colleagues. Can you name at least one person who is living with diabetes or high blood pressure? I bet you can. These two conditions disproportionately affect the African American community and have a severe impact on our health. What many people don't know is that high blood pressure and diabetes – particularly when they are not under control – can cause a devastating and life-changing complication: kidney disease.
Unfortunately, I am all too familiar with the silent killer known as kidney disease. In 2003, I found out my kidneys were failing due to complications from high blood pressure. I started dialysis treatments, going to the clinic three times a week for four hours at a time, and soon after was extremely fortunate to receive my first kidney transplant. As a single father of a then two-year-old, it was a relief to finally be on the road to recovery. However, my transplant failed in 2011, and I was forced to go back on dialysis. This time around, I opted to do peritoneal dialysis, a type of treatment that can occur at home, while I strived to keep a sense of normalcy for my son.
People who are unfamiliar with kidney disease don't understand the tolls it takes – not only on you, but also on the lives of your family members. While on dialysis, I wasn't able to act like a "normal" father; I couldn't work full time or play sports with my son. Dialysis treatments were mentally and physically exhausting, but I knew I had to keep fighting for myself and Caleb. In May 2012, I received a call that changed our lives. After seeing a Facebook post about my kidney health problems, Kellen, an Iraq war veteran and a member of my church, immediately was tested and found he was a match. In July, I received my second kidney transplant. Kellen gave me the gift of life and I feel that it is my responsibility to pay it forward. I joined the American Kidney Fund's patient-advocate network to help educate others in my community who are at risk. In fact, I was recently able to help two friends diagnosed with kidney disease and help educate and encourage them.
Unlike other populations, African Americans are more likely to develop the two leading causes of kidney disease – high blood pressure and diabetes – at a young age. We are six times more likely than Caucasians to develop high blood pressure-related kidney failure and nearly twice as likely to develop diabetes. In fact, almost 20 percent of all African Americans 20 or older have diabetes. The disparities are also striking when it comes to kidney disease. We make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet more than 30 percent of U.S. kidney failure patients are African American.
The disparities continue when we look at the likelihood of an African Americans to receive a kidney transplant. For example, a 2012 study by Johns Hopkins University Medical School found that in every kidney transplant center across the country, African Americans were both less likely to receive a transplant, and less likely to receive a transplant from a living donor, than Caucasian patients. The researchers thought there could be a number of reasons for this. One reason could be that high rates of obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes in the African American community are making it harder to find suitable living donors. Barriers to medical care and differences in culture, education and social attitudes were also cited in the study as probable obstacles.
Whatever the reasons for these disparities, the good news is that kidney disease is very often preventable, and we are capable of taking steps to lower our risk. We have the knowledge to fight this devastating disease and now it's time to apply that knowledge to create a healthier community for ourselves and our future generations. Join me in this fight against this silent killer, by communicating to others about the risk factors for kidney disease. There are many ways you can become part of the solution: find a free healthy screening and get tested, talk to your friends and family, share information at family gatherings, ask your church to include information in its bulletin, and raise awareness on your social media pages. You can visit the American Kidney Fund's website at www.kidneyfund.org to find a list of free screenings in your area as well as download free educational material.
Each of us needs to be a powerful advocate for our own health and the health of our loved ones. We all know someone who is at risk for kidney disease, so let's come together as a community to fight this devastating disease. This is a challenge we can win.