Friday, November 27, 2009

Remembering dialysis

Today I happened to come upon the attached memo, something I routinely sent out to people who asked about my kidney illness before the transplant took place. The memo evolved during the two-year period I was on dialysis -- this may be the final form of it.


* * *

Kidney illness update (as revised June 28, 2007)

Here are some of the questions friends have asked and brief responses...

>> What is the illness you have?

The gradual failure of my kidneys. Mine still are working, but at only about 9 or 10 percent of normal function.

Since January 2006, I have required dialysis (the filtering of my blood with an artificial kidney).

>> How sick are you?

Quite sick, but I don't feel sick. I'm far from a "worst case" patient. I was fortunate to become aware of the illness much earlier than is the case for many others thanks to blood tests several years ago. Because of early treatment, my kidneys are still working, though at a reduced capacity. My situation is fortunate. For many patients, by the time kidney illness is recognized, kidney function is close to zero. When that happens, daily liquid intake has to be drastically reduced. Patients may feel they're on an endless roller-coaster -- energy one day, following dialysis, then exhausted the next.

>> Is kidney illness painful?

Not really, at least not in my case. The insertion of the two hollow needles into my left arm when I have dialysis is not pain free, but the pain is usually over quickly.

>> What caused the kidney damage?

It's not certain, but most likely it had to do with high blood pressure.

>> Is kidney illness fatal?

Without treatment, indeed. But with dialysis, one can go on for many years, though with gradual deterioration as dialysis doesn't equal having a fully functional kidney. (Not long ago I witnessed a death in the dialysis clinic -- an 83-year-old patient who simply faded out. It seemed he had fallen asleep. As is often the case with dialysis patients, kidney failure was only one of the problems he was facing.)

>> Is there any cure?

Though there is work going on to develop an artificial kidney that can be implanted in the body, none exists so far. Perhaps in another generation?

The only cure to date is a kidney transplant. After many tests, it has been decided that I'm a suitable candidate for a transplant. Unless one find a kidney donor, the average waiting time is 54 months, and it can be as long as 72 months. A transplant can occur much more quickly if a living donor offers a kidney.

>> Do you have a kidney donor in sight?

Nancy is exploring the possibility of donating a kidney. She has had quite a few tests these past half year. So far she appears to be a good match (same blood type, in good physical condition, heart fine, etc.). We know from a renogram that both of her kidneys are working equally well, so that a) she will still have a kidney capable of doing all that it needs to do and b) the one she gives me will also be up to its task in my body. More recently she has had a CAT scan and another round of tissue matching tests.

Here are two web pages about kidney transplants:

>> Is kidney donation a risk to the donor?

While any surgery involves risks, the risks are regarded as slight for kidney donors. People who have given a kidney go on to live normal lives. (One of the early tests for potential donors is a scan to see if you do in fact have two kidneys. Not every one does. One healthy kidney, however, is all you need.)

>> What is hardest about dialysis?

For me, mainly the time it takes -- three sessions a week. Altogether dialysis involves approximately 50 hours a month or 600 hours per year -- about a quarter of my former working time. I normally leave the house about 2:30 and get back home about 6:30, traveling by bike. The hospital is only a kilometer away, so travel time isn't a big factor.

>> Can you travel outside Holland?

Yes, but not easily. I can't go anywhere for more than three days without first arranging dialysis care locally. This turns out to be a very time-consuming process. If the local dialysis clinic has too many patients already, as may easily be the case, they will not accept me. I had a great deal of trouble finding a clinic with space for me in London last May. I ended up in a private clinic that mainly serves wealthy patients from the Middle East. Later the same month, with the help of French friends, I was able to arrange five sessions of dialysis in Perpignan while taking part in a Merton conference in Prades. I've since been on lecture trips in Italy, Canada Spain, the USA, Greece, and -- most recently -- Memphis, Tennessee, for a conference on Thomas Merton.

>> What does a dialysis machine look like?

There's a photo of me hooked up to a dialysis machine at the Alkmaar hospital here:

>> How does a dialysis machine work?

There are drawings with brief explanations on these two web pages:

>> How are the people who take care of you?

I'm impressed with the nurses. All of them are extremely good at what they do and are, no less important, caring, good- humored people. The majority are women but there are also a number of male nurses.

>> Can you write during dialysis?

No. I really have effective use of only my right arm, though, with care, I can do a little with the left hand (the arm connected to the dialysis machine. I'm able to manage books and magazines. Dialysis has become mainly a time of reading. On the occasions when I'm too tired to read, I have a small DVD player and so cnn watch films.

>> Have you written anything about being ill?

I've written a chapter on "The Pilgrimage of Illness" for a book that Orbis will publish later this year ("The Road to Emmaus: Pilgrimage as a Way of Life"). The chapter is posted at:

Please keep us in your prayers.


* * *

photo: A maple leaf that was along my path in at the Antiochian Village in Pennsylvania last month, not quite two years after the kidney transplant.

* * *

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Jerome, patron saints of translators

Due to his having translated the Bible into Latin, St. Jerome (340-420) was recognized by later generations as the patron saint of translators. Few saints have inspired so many paintings, especially during the Renaissance.

In many of them, Jerome is shown as the desert ascetic he was for a significant part of his life. I saw one example of such a painting last month at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC:

The paintings of Jerome in the desert are wonderful and connect with a major part of his life, but my personal favorite is one by Antonello da Messina that hangs at the National Gallery in London.

Da Messina removes Jerome from the wilderness, placing him instead in an academic carrel, putting the stress on Jerome as scholar. It was the scholarly Jerome who became a hero of Christian humanists like Erasmus in 16th century Europe.

There is always a lion in paintings of Jerome. In the example by da Messina, one has to look in the shadows to the right to find him.

In Christian art, there are two sorts of lions, the baptized and the unbaptized. Jerome's lion is in the former category, a pacified lion who has embraced a vegetarian diet.

In fact the lion wandered into paintings of Jerome from the life story of a saint with a similar name, Gerasimos, who was abbot of a monastery along the Jordan River, not far from Jerome's cave in Bethlehem. Here is an example of a Gerasimos icon that's part of our icon corner, with a caption of which explains the lion story:

A comment about the da Messina painting from Nancy:

"This is Jerome of the well-ordered mind. Note that the center of the painting is not Jerome but the open book. Everything around it is peace, harmony and beauty. No street noise outside, no telephone ringing, no postman knocking on the door. All is tranquility, and the work goes on unimpeded. No distractions, no Facebook, no YouTube. Ahh, you can almost feel it. But then again, no wife to talk to, no children, no worldly cares. Just the task at hand, total focus on the work. Is this possible for us, or even desirable? Even writing this e-mail is keeping me from my work..."

We have a print of the da Messina painting that hangs near Nancy's desk. I'm sure she's not the only translator who finds encouragement in having an image of Jerome close to her work place.

-- Jim

note: Wikipedia has a good entry about Jerome: