Today is Valentine’s Day. It’s a day in which the traditional image of the heart is used to demonstrate one’s love and affection.
It’s also National Organ Donor Day, a day designed to increase awareness about organ donation and the lives that can be saved by being an organ donor.. In the United States, more than 120,000 people are waiting for a life-saving organ donation.
Joe Nolte is one of them. Thirty years ago, Joe was a typical high school student. He was an athlete who excelled in cross country, track and field and wrestling. He planned on lettering in 12 sports during his high school career.
In September 1988, his freshman year, he was required to undergo a physical. He told the doctor he was experiencing fatigue, which he thought was the result of his cross country running. He also told the doctor that he was experiencing knee pain, for which the doctor determined surgery was needed.
Joe had to have blood work done in preparation for his knee surgery. Little did he know that the results of his blood work would change his life forever.
“It was on October 30th, a day I will never forget,” Nolte recalls. “We were called into the family doctor’s office. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, as we were told that my kidneys were not working.”
Joe wasn’t quite sure what to make of the doctor’s words.
“The blood work result showed that my creatine level was at 8 or 9. I was told that there were only a few options: dialysis, transplantation, and death. I have never heard of dialysis and transplantation only happened in the movies.”
He was told he would have to undergo dialysis — a frightening thought for anyone, but especially for a 17-year-old high school student who just weeks before had dreamt of lettering in multiple sports. The doctor informed him dialysis was his only option until they could find a kidney to transplant into his body
“One Friday night in November, my father took a call and we were told I needed to start dialysis on Monday,” Nolte said. “I was sitting on the floor next to the heater vent in tears. My father bent down and hugged me saying it will be ok.
“Monday seemed to come over night. I was so afraid to be stuck with tree limb size needles. I was shown the 15 gauge size needles before, but over time they grew larger in my head.”
It was just the beginning of his nightmare.
“Treatments were horrible for me, which was four hours of pure hell.”
The following Spring, Joe’s parents received a call. He had been matched to a donated kidney. The transplant was performed, but the new kidney didn’t take to Joe’s body,
In May of 1990, Joe received a second transplant. This one lasted for 15 years.
He was married and everything appeared to be going well until he was told he would need a new kidney. A match was made and Joe received his third transplant. He did well for ten years and was hopeful the third time would be a charm.
But, as Joe has learned, there are no guarantees when it comes to kidney disease. He will need a fourth transplant. He’s back on the waiting list.
“My journey with renal failure has taught me very important lessons,” Nolte says looking back at his journey. ”This treatment is a marathon, not a sprint.”
There are more some 30,000 patients in Florida who require dialysis in order to live. More than 4,000 of them are awaiting a kidney transplant. Joe works in the IT department for DaVita Kidney Care, one of the leading dialysis treatment companies in Florida providing dialysis to nearly 14,000, or about half of the state’s dialysis patients, at 246 centers across the state.
Finding a donor is one thing, paying the cost of a transplant is another obstacle to overcome.
One of the legislative priorities of the National Kidney Foundation of Florida is a proposal to require insurances companies cover the costs of transplanting a donated kidney.
A person is born with two kidneys but only needs one to survive. Often a person will donate one of them to help a patient whose own kidneys are failing. The surgery is considered to be an elective procedure meaning insurance companies aren’t required to pay for the surgery. Medicaid picks up a portion of the costs but the patient is left with a hospital bill that could cost them $200,000. A measure before this year’s Legislature would require insurers to cover the costs of the transplant.
But before a transplant can occur, a kidney or another organ must be available. Joe Nolte has a message for those who are considering donating an organ..
“The way I look at it is you never know who is going to be in need,” Nolte said. “It could be yourself. It could be a loved one. Or, it could be a complete stranger. We’re all living a life and if by dying you could leave something behind to help someone grow, that’s the actual reason.”