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Kidney Disease A Fact of Life for One Transplant Survivor

Sept. 13, 2006 — Henderson Wheeler Sr. remembers being nine years old and having problems with his bladder. Now 51, Wheeler has been dealing with some form of kidney-related problem almost all his life.
Being a stubborn child, he never spoke to anyone about his problems. "Only my cousin knew," he said. That was back in the '60s, when he lived in Barbados. His family moved to St. Croix in 1967.
"At 28, I started to notice [significant] changes in my body," Wheeler said. "I noticed blotches in my skin, and while I was at work, I vomited blood." He still denied something was wrong.
"Over another few weeks, I started to have more problems," he said, adding that he was having strange symptoms. "My knees and feet were weak, and my body started to have an odor," he said.
In the mid-'80s, when Wheeler's symptoms started becoming progressively worse, doctors on St. Croix were ill-equipped to deal with his situation. "The doctor told me 15 percent of my kidneys were working," Wheeler said.
At that point Wheeler said he was scared "out of [his] wits."
Despite being told to travel to St. Thomas to see a kidney specialist, he ignored the doctor and didn't go. The doctor called him a month later to reiterate the gravity of the situation. "He told me time is running out," he said.
Wheeler's story is one of survival. The nurses at Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center (JFLH) hold Wheeler in high regard. "I like to keep everybody smiling," he said.
Administrator of Hemo-Dialysis Carmen Heywood said there are transplant regions around the globe. The territory has its own region, and up to five people receive transplants each year. "Last year we had five transplants and have a high success rate," said Heywood.
Kidney transplants, according to Heywood, "give the opportunity for patients to lead somewhat normal lives." Successful transplant patients may work, attend school, and be active citizens.
Wheeler knows what it is like to be tied to a dialysis machine. All those years ago, it took four months of dialysis before he received his transplant. While Wheeler's transplant lasted more than 20 years, he's once again battling kidney disease.
"I was diagnosed with chronic kidney failure," he said. When he started to feel swelling in all his joints, he knew that his transplant was failing. "I waited to tell my family," he said. Wheeler knew his daughter and son would risk their lives to save him. "I was too weak to receive a kidney at the time," he said.
Wheeler is now, once again, on dialysis and goes to JFLH three times a week for three hours a day.
Still Wheeler knows he has a lot to be thankful for. Currently he's the sole survivor of the three St. Croix transplant patients who received their kidneys in 1984. "We used to fly back and forth together," he said.
Later Wheeler gushed about the nurses in the JFLH nephrology unit. "Every nurse in here is my friend," he said.
While "House of Pain" is Wheeler's pet name for the dialysis unit, he said, "It could be worse; thank God I am still moving."
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