Monday, May 17, 2010

An atypical senior trip

I had become accustomed to the routine, watching one of my best friends hook herself up to her dialysis machine at night. She had an E.T.-like stack of medical equipment that would roll up next to her bed, complete with a serpentine mass of small clear plastic tubing that led to her belly. She was meticulous about keeping the entry site clean — she had to be, to avoid infection.


That's Shanna on the left, and me on the right.

Shanna was born with a pair of kidneys that never really grew up. By the time we were juniors in high school, the miniature organs could no longer keep up with the demands of filtering the blood of an adult-sized body. To assist with the process, she would pump a solution into the peritoneal space in her abdomen, which would clean her blood through osmosis. The fluid would then be pumped back out into a drainage bag. The machine helped her cycle through this process over and over as she tried to sleep at night.


During the daytime, she had a normal life. Well, normal by our standards, anyway. I'm not sure if being connoisseurs of burnt almond fudge ice cream, going on lots of hikes, trying hard to be good daughters of God, and the occasional attempt at guided imagery count as normal for two teenage girls, but that's how we rolled. We did the normal stuff, too — pining over a different guy each semester and wading through all the teenage girl drama.

Shanna's 16th birthday:

Shanna had a few complications due to the dialysis. She, along with everyone else who was there with her one particular day in the hemodialysis unit, was given a staph infection, iritis, and gout. She also developed a couple of ulcers due to some of the medication that, by the time they figured it out, left her weighing less than eighty pounds and being fed through a nasal tube.  There was also a bout of interstitial peritonitis, which has been described as being worse than childbirth.

Another time, she had some problems with the catheter that was placed in her abdomen and was scheduled to have a temporary one placed in her neck. Her family woke up feeling terribly ill that morning. Her mom planned to stay home with Shanna's brother. She begged her mom to come along, so her mother left Alden with a neighbor and made the pre-dawn trip. Come to find out, a few hours more, and her family would have died from carbon monoxide poisoning. It was a bad day. Thankfully, surgery is a compelling reason to get up and out of the house, in spite of the early hour and everyone feeling like a terrible flu bug had knocked them flat.

For the most part, Shanna was able to function normally. She went to school, and was even allowed to go on vacations. We planned a trip with our friend Beth the summer after we graduated from high school.

(Beth, Shanna, and me. That's my natural curl. I've spent years and a small fortune learning how to tame that beast!)

We wanted to spend some time in Southern California, to give me a chance to check out my future college, and to go to Disneyland, of course.

We planned to stay with Beth's aunt and uncle who lived in the area. Shanna arranged to have the bags of fluid and everything she would need to perform dialysis shipped to the house ahead of time. Everything went smoothly and we arrived as planned.


We spent a day at Disneyland (rockin' the fanny packs!) and enjoyed spending time at the pool. We stayed up till the wee hours of the morning, hanging out with Beth's cousins.

One night, our vacation took a turn for the worse. Shanna awoke in serious pain. She knew exactly what the problem was, having experienced it before. Peritonitis. We woke up Beth's uncle and informed him that he was about to take one of his guests to the hospital. And no, it couldn't wait until morning.

I went with Shanna. I remember sitting in one of the darkened E.R. patient rooms, waiting an eternity for someone to come and give her something for the pain as she writhed on the exam table. I tried to make the process happen quicker but no one was taking me seriously. They were too busy verifying that the pain was, indeed, what we claimed it to be. I never wanted to be treated like an adult more than at that moment.

I can't blame them; here we were, two teenagers on vacation, one with a tube implanted in her belly and a serious medical history, with no parents or familiar physicians around to authorize treatment. There may have been an authorization letter given to Beth's uncle for just this situation, but it didn't help much. I felt helpless — Shanna felt much worse.

Finally, the condition was confirmed, authorization was given, and Shanna was treated. I spent the rest of our vacation with her at the hospital, standing up to the nurse who wasn't being sanitary while caring for her, and trying to help decipher what the non-native speaking doctor was saying. We had hoped the trip would be eventful and memorable; it was!

Later that summer, I headed off to college and Shanna's health deteriorated even further. Eventually, her mother gave her a kidney and a transplant was performed. Then it became a battle with the prednisone and the emotional and physical toll of being a transplant patient. Prednisone is not fun, from what I've seen. This is what it does to a person:

(Please don't hate me for posting this picture, Shanna!)

The following picture was taken on the one year anniversary of her kidney transplant. We had a kidney-shaped cake to celebrate.


Looking back, I don't know how she dealt with this, knowing that a transplant was a part of her future — and then living it — at such a formative time of life. She handled it beautifully and was always one of my favorite people to be around. Her smile and optimism were contagious. I'm sure she must have vented about it, but that's not what I remember when I think back on our friendship.

Years later, you would never know that she had serious medical issues as a teenager.


She has fought more than her share of uphill battles, has made a career of helping people, and continues to be one of the people I look up to the most, in spite of the falling out we had over her ugly purple jacket sorry — I've been corrected — sweater, and the fact that the boys always liked her more. ;)


Kathryn said...

wow, what an amazing story! Every time I hear about someone who has gone through hell and back, it makes me feel so silly for complaining! haha. Thanks for sharing this, so inspirational!

Ratz said...

Amazingly inspirational....

laurie said...

such a great story.. thanks for sharing :)

Jen at Cabin Fever said...

That is the type of friendship that you know you can cherish forever. And what a courageous and inspirational girl!

We talked about peritoneal dialysis in school and I never understood what it really was. Your post actually explained it better than my teachers! So if there is a question about it on the NCLEX and I get it right I will be sure to think of you :)

Allyson & Jere said...

What a sweet post and story. She seems like an amazing person for sure. I can't imagine having to live with such a condition and so much pain. She is beautiful in her wedding picture. Thank goodness for friendships like this.

Shanna Gwilliam said...

You can just tell how wonderful Katie is from this post, can't you?? How many sixteen year old girls would spend their graduation vacation in the hospital, sticking up for a sick friend?? Katie was, is, and always will be one of the most incredible people I know. She helped me through so much and brought a lot of joy at a hard time. Thanks for this post, Katie... it made me realize how lucky I am... for health, friendship, and life!! :)

Christine said...

Sounds like the two of you are both pretty amazing. :)

Little Bishops said...

Following you back from the party.

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