Dialysis Patients Know Necessity of Hardship

The telephone rang in the afternoon. By the next morning, Henry Murillo had a new kidney.

“And new it was,” the lifelong Santa Barbara resident later wrote in a letter describing the life-saving operation and transplanted organ. “It’s from a 5-year-old little girl. I thank her every night. Without her, I would most likely still be on the machine.”

Murillo moved on after nearly three years of dialysis, but the boxy machine that kept him alive remains at the Santa Barbara Artificial Kidney Dialysis Center. Day after day, the machine whirs and clicks in a slot near a corner of the roomy facility— serving a churn of patients whose kidneys no longer excrete urine from the body correctly. It’s a relatively large machine, one dialysis unit amid many. And while the machine is not alone, neither is the 62 year-old Murillo.

The mail room worker who received his new kidney in December of 1999 is among scores of diabetics debilitated from the disease, which often leads to severe health problems such as kidney failure. They arrive for dialysis at a former bank building at 1704 State Street. The machines there form a near perfect circle in a wood-trimmed room that echoed with financial banter before dialysis took over. More than 60 percent of the patients suffer from diabetes, their caretakers say.

Like other diabetics on dialysis, Murillo said his story could help children susceptible to the disease make healthy choices and prevent dire straits later in life. “Don’t be scared,” is Murillo’s advice to kids. “I could have done something about it. You’ll never be an older man with a sickness if you catch it.” Early screening and increased public awareness of certain risk factors— including poor diet and unhealthy weight gain— can reduce the incidence or impact of diabetes, doctors say. Experts partly blame a nationwide increase of diabetes on childhood obesity, which they explain is brought on in part by overindulgence.

Not all diabetics who suffer some form of kidney failure receive a transplant like Murillo did. Most patients end up spending many more years on dialysis than Murillo’s three years, sitting motionless nine hours or more a week while a manufactured filter clears their blood of toxins.

The demands of dialysis have filled Bertha Marquez, born and raised on the South Coast, with a range of emotions. Since March of last year, the 74 year-old has visited the artificial kidney center at 7 am. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays— undergoing three-hour treatments because diabetes slowed her

Henry Murillo, left, and Juan Carlos Martinez have undergone successful kidney transplants. kidney function beyond the healthy norm.
“I had never been sick a day in my life,” she said last week. “At first I felt it was really imposing on me. “I was scared,” Marquez said. “It really bothered me to come. It seemed like such a waste of time. “Then I thought, ‘Well, that’s the best thing for me, I might as well enjoy it.” It makes it easier to accept.”

Despite tolerating the procedures, the unavoidable necessity of dialysis is not lost on Marquez or her fellow patients. Some described a Catch-22. Dialysis saved their lives, so in a sense they were glad to avail themselves. But the time invested, week after week, has taken a toll.

“It takes some of my activities,” Marquez said. “We plan to be here.” To pass the time, Marquez usually sits quietly and reads Spanish verse from her King James Bible— the whole Bible. She started with Genesis, is currently enjoying the Book of Daniel, and plans to finish the entire tome. She’s currently halfway through the project. “I read about 25 chapters every sitting,” she said.

Bertha Marquez works her way through the Bible while undergoing weekly kidney dialysis at the Santa Barbara Artificial Kidney Center. Dr. Michael Fisher hopes that his focus on prevention can reduce patients’ need for the procedure.

Meanwhile, the dialysis machine reads the retired laundry worker’s blood pressure. It whirs onward, and circulates the woman’s blood through translucent tubes that connect to a shunt— a tubular device permanently anchored under the skin of her forearm. All around Marquez, patients recline beside their machines. Some sleep, some chit-chat. It’s the early morning crowd, but the patients come in shifts. The place will no doubt stay busy.

It would be easy to call the artificial kidney center grim, but the technicians who attend to the patients there seem to cheer those willing to spot silver linings to their otherwise unfortunate situations. Another kidney transplant recipient, Santa Barbara City College student Juan Carlos Martinez, 21, said his experiences as a hospital and former dialysis patient have inspired him toward a career in medicine: “I felt like, ‘Oh my, it’s another world here. It’s so interesting. The people who work here are great. They make you feel comfortable,” Murillo agrees, saying during a recent visit to the facility, “You sort of become family with the people who are here . . . Some of them have passed away.”

Despite the silver linings, dialysis is hardly fun and games. During the lengthy procedures, Murillo’s legs often cramped. He read newspapers to pass the time. “Maybe if I could fall asleep, I’d fall asleep.” And dialysis made travel a chore: “You can take trips, but you’ve got to make arrangements.” As he strolled through the center Murillo stood aside his old machine — the one near the corner. “It’s an ugly-looking thing,” he said. “Even though you hate it, it does keep you alive.”

Adapted from an article by NEWS-PRESS staff writer THOMAS SCHULTZ
6 July, 2000
and re-printed courtesy of News-Press