by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Staff Writer
In 2004, Ronald Weightman went from managing a Gay nightclub in Kent, Washington to spending five hours a day, three days a week on kidney dialysis. The road to dialysis was a perilous one, but it's the road Weightman traveled during and after his dialysis treatment that has inspired so many. Armed with a kidney transplant and a $3,000 James W. Haviland Rehabilitation Scholarship from Northwest Kidney Centers, Weightman is currently studying at Highline Community College to become a medical assistant.
"After going through the process of dialysis and transplantation, I hope to finish my educational goals to work with kidney patients and offer them hope during their journey of dialysis and, hopefully, transplant," Weightman told SGN. "I would be honored to work with a transplant team somewhere. To be able to offer hope to those patients would be huge to me. I'd tell them, 'It will be hard, but it will get better.'"
Weightman was on top of the world in 1996. He was the reigning Empress of the Imperial Sovereign Court of Tacoma, managing a nightclub, and living happily with his partner of 20 years, Patrick Hines. Weightman and Hines knew the community, and the community knew them as the two men who helped start Gay Pride in Tacoma. He was an activist helping to raise money for HIV organizations and fought for equal housing rights. Then, Weightman's kidneys collapsed.
"I thought I was dying. I had a great year as Empress, and life kept going," he said. "I can relate to people who were diagnosed HIV positive in the '80s. They thought they had a death sentence, but then didn't die. The years pass and they are still here. So, you begin to live with hope and you have to take care of yourself."
In 2004, Weightman could no longer avoid kidney dialysis. He began his first sessions at Northwest Kidney Centers, a model for saving and sustaining the lives of people with chronic kidney disease that focuses on improving the quality of patients' lives. A not-for-profit organization, Northwest Kidney Centers provides personalized care for patients in the Puget Sound region.
"It is frightening when you first come in," Weightman recalls, "The machines make these sounds, it seems like there are miles of tubes of blood - it almost looks like a surgery is about to happen."
The pain and agony that we go through with dialysis itself, he said, can be horrible. Weightman said he would feel stomach sick immediately afterward and was subject to horrendous cramps.
Still, Weightman never gave in or gave up. At almost the same time he started dialysis, he began volunteering countless hours with the organization and helped raise over $6,000 for Northwest Kidney Centers.
Wightman spent three years on a waiting list before he got his chance for a kidney transplant. The process, he said, is monotonous. You have to be healthy enough to survive a transplant. He said it took him nearly a year to pass the tests to survive the surgery.
"I prayed. I prayed hard," recalls Weightman. "I prayed, let it be local and let it match."
The kidney wasn't a perfect match, but close enough to try. Weightman received the transplant he prayed for in November 2007 at Virginia Mason hospital. At first, however, he spent eight days in the hospital before the kidney took to his body and began to work properly. It was a challenging time.
"I have to be very careful during cold and flu season because I have a compromised immune system, just like someone with HIV," he said. "This is due to anti-rejection medications. I've caught pneumonia two years in a row and had a bad sinus infection. It's basically a chemical balancing game the first year after a transplant - it's tough that first year."
Now, Weightman has set his sights on school and developing a strong sense of himself.
"I feel pretty good. At 44, I'm going back to school," he told SGN. "The transplant has allowed me to be with my partner longer and maybe, just maybe, with my story I might be able to have people become donors to help further another brother or sister's life."
"You can be a live donor," says Weightman, "You can donate one kidney."
Weightman said people could visit www.donatelifetoday.com for more information about donating. He said the website does a lot to dispel myths and fallacies about donating.
"Take care of yourselves; your kidney can last a lifetime or can last someone else a lifetime - donate," he said. "There are 13,000 people waiting on a list for donations. You can't take the organs with you when you go."
He said one in seven people have kidneys disease and don't realize it.
"People should get checked," Weightman said. "If you are smart enough to check your HIV status, you should be smart enough to check your kidneys."
According to Northwest Kidney Centers, in most cases kidney disease is preventable and its progression can be halted. The incidence among American adults has increased 30 percent in the past 10 years. Thirty percent of the country's Medicare budget is spent on kidney disease; seven percent is spent on dialysis treatment. Two of the leading causes of kidney failure are high blood pressure and diabetes. Staying healthy, eating a well balanced diet, and reducing your salt intake can greatly decrease your chance of kidney failure.
Northwest Kidney Center's professionals say your doctor can run three simple tests to assess your risk: check your blood pressure, test for protein in the urine, and test your blood for creatinine.
"I would love to get all of Seattle to buy a Northwest City bracelet at www.nwkidney.org," Weightman said. "They are the only not-for-profit kidney dialysis in King County. The care for patients is amazing."
He said they are always updating the chairs, which patients spend numbers of hours in, and have laptop computers available as well. They are a wonderful and worthwhile charity, he said, adding that they are always looking for volunteers.
Weightman said he has a simple message for SGN readers: "Donate, get tested, and check out the websites."
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