By Elaine Porterfield
Special To The Medium
Twice a year, Iris Clay celebrates the anniversaries of the days she received each of her two kidney transplants with her donors. One transplant, from her sister, lasted many years, while the other from a co-worker didn’t take for long. But she remains deeply grateful for the gift of each kidney, and she loves getting together with her donors and celebrating.
She calls them her “surgerversaries.”
“It’s nothing you can ever repay,” said Clay, a 56-year-old Seattle resident. “I’ve been so blessed.”
March is National Kidney Month, but for Iris Clay, every month is kidney month. “I make people aware year-round about kidney health,” said Clay, who hopes to educate others about kidney disease and persuade them to talk to their doctors about it.
Clay is one of the more than 10 percent of American adults with chronic kidney disease. As an African American, her risk was four times as high as for Caucasians because African Americans are more likely to have diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, all common causes of kidney disease. In Clay’s case, her health problems began when she developed lupus, an autoimmune disease that disproportionately attacks women of color. It eventually wreaked havoc on her kidneys.
“I’ve had lupus since 1971, back when I was living in Chicago with my family,” Clay said. “No one really knew what it was at the time. I didn’t have to go on dialysis then. My parents ended up moving us out here (to Seattle) because we had other family here. We didn’t realize it was the best state to be in if you had kidney disease.”
Kidney disease worsens over time, but its progression can be slowed or stopped if people are diagnosed early and take steps to incorporate healthier habits. Once kidney disease progresses to kidney failure, however, it’s irreversible and patients need a kidney transplant or regular dialysis treatments, where a machine cleanses the blood of body waste and extra fluid, to stay alive.
When Clay’s condition worsened in 1993, “It was recommended strongly I go to the University of Washington for care, and that’s been the best thing ever for me.” She received a kidney from her sister, and it lasted 11 years before failing.
“I rejected in 2005, then I was back with Northwest Kidney Centers for a while, (dialyzing) at the Northgate center,” Clay said. “I then got a second transplant from a co-worker. I’m lucky. I’ve had a lot of people who wanted to donate.”
Clay went to college in Seattle making her way to a job at City Light, from where she retired years ago. It was there she that met her second donor. She said she believes that transplant came about because she’s never been shy about discussing kidney disease and the vital importance of organ donation.
“I was always very open about my health,” said Clay. “I’d bring in literature (to work) from Northwest Kidney Centers for people to read because people really don’t understand the issue.”
Her second transplant failed for unknown reasons.
“I was back at Northwest Kidney Center as of 2012,” she said. Three times a week, she receives dialysis at Northwest Kidney Centers’ Lake City clinic. “I was scared to have to dialyze at first, but it’s going well. You have to limit fluids and watch all these things about your health and diet. I sometimes feel ‘why me.’ Then I realize I was meant to be educating people.”
Life remains good: “I now live in a retirement place, and I am able to still drive, walk and do things.” It’s doesn’t have to be grueling or awful, Clay said. “If you just watch the normal things, keeping your weight down, watching your blood pressure, trying to eat the best you can, going for walks, that’s all you need to do,” she said. “You don’t have to be a marathon runner.”