Paul Campbell is a silver linings guy. But it hasn’t come easy.
Diagnosed with end-stage renal failure at 19, the Glenside resident didn’t know it was a disease that usually hits older people, or that diabetes is the No. 1 cause, followed by high blood pressure — conditions he didn’t have.
What he soon found out was that he would be going to dialysis three days a week, four hours at a time, all while trying to juggle work and school.
After eight years of dialysis, having to drop out of college and watch friends move on with their lives, Campbell received a kidney transplant in July.
Now, he’s hoping to walk in this year’s Kidney Walk Oct. 8, the nation’s largest walk to fight kidney disease by raising awareness and funding lifesaving programs that educate and support patients, their families and those at risk.
“I’m free,” he said Sept. 28, sitting with social worker Lee Detwiler at DaVita Abington Dialysis in Willow Grove, where he spent almost 5,000 hours on dialysis.
The road for the Upper Dublin High School graduate hasn’t been smooth, but he managed to find the positives.
“Without being on dialysis, I wouldn’t have met these people,” said Campbell, now 28. “I wouldn’t be the same person. They helped me understand things about myself.”
Born with an undeveloped kidney, which was removed when he was 1, Campbell said he was able to lead a normal life until his freshman year at Penn State Abington. He’s not sure if it was food poisoning or the flu, but he ended up with pain in his lower back, went to the doctor and found out his creatine level — a measure of toxins in the blood — was 27.
“The normal level is 1,” Detwiler said.
Campbell was operated on to remove a blockage in his kidney and drain fluid,, but his creatine remained at 15, so he had to go on kidney dialysis, he said.
He started going to DaVita three days a week, attending college classes part-time the other days.
“A lot of times going to dialysis is pretty exhausting,” said Detwiler, who helped Campbell get on the transplant list. “It can cause blood pressure instability, nausea, cramps; it takes a lot of courage to do it.”
He had support from family, friends and even neighbors, and was convinced that and something to focus on would get him through — “it depends on the wait time and luck,” he said. “You have to put dialysis first — that’s your life.”
Dialysis draws the blood from the body, puts it through a filter and puts it back, but it can only do 10 percent of what a kidney can do, Detwiler said. Patients also have to take medicine and follow a special diet.
The average wait time for a kidney is about five years, said Dr. Jeff Giullian, DaVita vice president for medical affairs. Transplants can come from a deceased donor or a living donor — “you only need one kidney to lie a long, healthy life,” he said.
About 550,000 people in the United States have end stage renal disease, of which about 450,000 are on dialysis, he said. According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in seven in the U.S. have chronic kidney disease.
There are about 19,000 kidney transplants a year, which is “a large number, but not nearly enough to meet the demand,” Giullian said.
Campbell’s case is a bit of an aberration, Giullian said.
“He was so young,” and “eight years is a long time to wait. It’s a testament to the great care he received,” he said, noting DaVita Abington Dialysis gets a 4-star rating from Medicare.
“Paul’s blood type is very rare,” Detwiler said. “He got a kidney from someone who died.”
“It’s not a cure, [transplant recipients] have to take drugs, but they’re able to have their life back,” she said. “We’ve had 56 get transplants in 57 months.”
Campbell said he focused on being physically fit.
“I figured when I got to surgery, my body would be better able to handle the shock and I would recover faster,” he said.
Having played football and lacrosse in high school, he started working out, trying to stay active, eating the right foods and taking medicine, he said.
“It’s a lot to try to balance with daily life,” Campbell said. At 24, after completing two years of college he had to stop. “School, work” — Campbell is a sales associate at Modell’s — and trying to stay fit “was too much.”
“It’s a big emotional toll and a financial toll,” Detwiler said, and about six months ago, Campbell sat down to talk with her. “Everyone was getting on with life and he was in a holding pattern.”
“It’s hard to ask for help, but if you don’t you won’t get past certain things,” Campbell said. “Lee told me options to keep my mind in the game.
“You’re going to get a kidney and then focus on everything else,” he told himself. “Remember why you’re working out. Then you will be free.
“Once I figured it out, I got back in the game,” he said. “I made a plan: get a kidney, continue to work, go back to school, get an apartment, keep adding goals.”
“A lot of families look at kidney failure as a death sentence,” Detwiler said. “A lot get depressed. We try to work with them to process it, that they’re a person who needs dialysis, not a dialysis patient.”
Patients waiting for a kidney can get multiple calls from a transplant center, she said, as they don’t always work out.
“It’s a real roller coaster.”
The eighth call for Campbell came July 12 at noon. The transplant center at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania had a kidney for him; he needed to be there at 6 p.m.
He got to the hospital, called his mom and his friends, but told himself, “don’t get your hopes up.” At 12:45 p.m. he was prepped for surgery at 1 a.m.
“The kidney kicked in right away,” Campbell said.
“What shocked me was after a while I finally realized I could do stuff.
“I couldn’t go anywhere before,” he said. “Now I can focus on my next goal. I can save money to go back to school.”
“Everybody in the unit bursts into tears” when a patient gets a new kidney, Detwiler said. “It’s like our own kid. It’s a real gift to see someone get on with their life.”
“Being here helped me understand you will go through difficult things in life,” Campbell said. “Now I can be a beacon for others.”
For information on kidney disease, being a donor and transplants go to www.kidney.org.