KENAI — Doctors are amazed Bonita Mahan is still alive.
The Soldotna resident’s kidneys are barely functioning — an estimated 10 to 13 percent efficiency, they say.
Mahan suffers from renal kidney failure and the medical team at Virginia Mason in Seattle hopes to find her a health kidney in four to six months.
She needs a donor. But that could take a long time — likely more than she has to spare.
A Soldotna resident for over 50 years, Mahan has spent little time outside the Kenai Peninsula. She calls the area home, as it offers everything she needs.
However, in Alaska, there aren’t any hospitals offering kidney transplants, which Mahan needs as quickly as possible.
“They don’t know how long I can live with the way my kidneys are now,” the 57-year-old said. “The kidneys just keep getting worse. Deteriorating. Both of them are gone.”
Renal or acute kidney failure is when the kidney suddenly loses the ability to remove waste from blood and concentrate urine without losing electrolytes.
There are many possible causes of kidney damage, such as decreased blood flow due to low blood pressure, disorders that cause clotting within the kidney’s blood vessels and pregnancy complications.
When Mahan was 22 doctors discovered she was born without a certain valve that aids in kidney and bladder function. She underwent an operation to receive the valve, but by then permanent damage was done. Her kidneys improved for a short time, reaching 60 percent efficiency, but have worsened over the years.
More than 485,000 Americans are being treated for kidney failure, also called end stage renal disease, or ESRD. More than 341,000 are dialysis patients and more than 140,000 have a functioning kidney transplant, according to the National Kidney Foundation.
There are mornings when Mahan’s lower back hurts too much to get out of bed.
“With kidney failure you get really tired and wore out,” she said. “It’s called a silent killer, because many people don’t realize what’s going on. The lower part of your back hurts a lot. Feet swell up a lot. It causes high blood pressure because the kidneys can’t clean the blood.”
Bonita has family in the area, but none are eligible to donate. Donors must be healthy, willing to donate without pressure and be blood type compatible.
“They have to generally be very healthy people,” Jessica Buck, lead transplant coordinator at Virginia Mason, said. “Donors go through tests, and they meet with the transplant team to make sure risk (to themselves) is minimal.”
Mahan’s brother, Brian, has lupus, and her son, Rocky, is positive he is unable to donate.
“I know that my kidneys won’t work for her,” Rocky said. “I could have kidney problems of my own down the road.”
The two treatments for kidney failure are dialysis and kidney transplantation. There are two different types of dialysis, a procedure where the blood is manually cleaned by processes outside of the body. The decision of which specific treatment to use is based on a patient’s medical condition, lifestyle and personal preference.
Fresenius Medical Care’s Kenai Peninsula Dialysis in Soldotna serves 22 patients. Before opening two years ago, there was no dialysis provider in the area. It provides in- and out-patient care.
A large portion of the patients are waiting for a transplant, Maja Olsson, director of operations for Fresenius Medical Care in Alaska, said.
“Patients may not be able to receive a transplant before they get to the point in their disease where they need dialysis, so they go on dialysis while they wait,” she said.
There are about 500 patients in Alaska on dialysis, either at medical centers or at home, she said.
The patients come three days a week for four hours at a time.
“They come to us until they get a transplant or for the rest of their life,” she said. “I’ve known of patients who need transplants or dialysis that have been on it for 30 years. It’s very possible to live a long time on dialysis.”
Mahan prefers not to live on a dialysis machine. She’s witnessed friends die after taking that route. One friend died in less than a week and another died in a month after being “hooked up.”
Rocky sees no point in talking his mother into dialysis treatment, as he wants to respect her wishes.
“I’m not going to force her to do something she doesn’t want to do,” he said.
Donor kidneys are not easy to come by. The length of time a person waits for a transplant is influenced by many factors. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to more than 10 years to receive a transplant. On average, waiting times are one to five years, according to information provided by Virginia Mason staff.
Approximately 60,000 people wait for kidney transplants at any given time in the United States, and there are 5,000 to 6,000 deceased donors (kidneys recovered from someone who dies) annually, according to Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network.
Attorney Joe Skrha has known Mahan and her family for years. After hearing about her difficulties in finding a donor, Skrha stepped up to the plate. The 56-year-old wants to give back to the community.
Annual car fatalities in the double digits are not uncommon in the area and Skrha contends if word got out to victims’ families donations would increase.
“Families could allow their loved ones to live through helping someone else,” he said. “If they could go ahead and harvest that kidney and donate to Bonita it would give her a second chance at life.”
If anyone wishes to modify their will to become an organ donor they need to speak with their doctor, Skrha added.
Deciding to donate can be difficult. People worry they are an unlikely match for the recipient or the donation will cause future health problems.
Studies suggest living with one kidney does not affect how long you will live or increase the chance that the donor will develop kidney disease. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine reported that health after donation was about the same as health before donation, and most donors report not being physically affected at all.
If a person’s kidney does not match the intended recipient they can always donate to someone else in need.
“I’m hoping I can find a match,” Mahan said. “If the donor’s kidney matches they can do it right away, but if it doesn’t match they can give it to someone who does match.”