Throughout high school and college, I played football, basketball, and golf. After graduation, I stayed active and even participated in several Strongman Challenges. I took care of my body: I worked out five days a week and I ate right. So when I ended up in the hospital with extreme nausea and swollen ankles — symptoms I thought were due to a bad flu bug — I was shocked to hear the doctor’s diagnosis.
“Steve, your kidneys are failing.”
The silence in the room was deafening. “What do you mean, my kidneys are failing?”
My girlfriend, Ashley, sat next to me on the examination table. Her face showed both shock and horror.
I thought to myself, “Is this happening? Did he really say I was in renal failure? Am I going to die?”
Over the course of the next week, we learned that I had a disease called IGA nephropathy, a congenital autoimmune-related disease in which my white blood cells were attacking my kidneys. Caught early, it can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications. My circumstances weren’t normal, however, and my rapidly progressive IGA nephropathy was killing me.
The following weeks were a blur of medications and chemotherapy — and lots of questions.
I was only 29 and I was healthy: How could this happen?
Healthy to Sick, Overnight
It was a gray day in November 2011 when I received a call from my nephrologist, who instructed me to head to the hospital immediately: Our approach wasn’t working, and I was now in end-stage renal failure. I would need a catheter placed near my heart to receive dialysis, a treatment that uses a machine to do the work of my kidneys and clean my blood of toxins and impurities. I would then be placed on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, continuing to receive dialysis in the interim.
Ashley and I called our families, and for the first time, the weight of what I was facing came crashing down. I was scared, and I was running out of time.
During the days that followed, I quickly realized that the pain and discomfort of chemotherapy was nothing compared with the awfulness of dialysis. Three days a week, I climbed into a reclining chair, joked with the nurse who hooked me into the machine, and lay back for four hours of treatment. My blood was in constant motion, cycling through a tube connected to my shunt, or port, and into the filtering machine. And three days a week, when my treatment was finished, I climbed back into my car, headed home — and continually vomited for the rest of the day. It was truly the lowest point in my short life.
After months of this long-running horror show, my nephrologist said that he thought I was a good candidate for home dialysis. Because I had stayed fit and healthy, my heart was in great shape, and he felt it was safe to recommend it for me.
Once approved, I underwent minor surgery to place a shunt in my abdomen, and Ashley and I quickly learned the ins and outs of home dialysis. Although I now had to connect to the machine each night, doing dialysis while sleeping offered the possibility of a normal life during the day.
A normal life meant the prospect of returning to the things that had brought me joy and grounding before my kidney failure.
As soon as my body adjusted to this new way of cleansing itself, I hit the gym again. And the more I worked out, the more my attitude and outlook changed for the better. The stronger I got, the more positive I was that I could beat this thing.
A few months after my original diagnosis, I joined Life Time Fitness in Austin, Texas, and the club proved more valuable than I ever thought possible. While I was there, I was a normal guy with normal problems. I was a weightlifter trying to better my max; I was a runner striving to quicken my pace. I was not the guy fighting for his life while waiting for a kidney donor.
I met some great friends along the way — guys who were always surprised to find out that their lifting buddy was sick. I realized that this club and the people in it were saving my life in more ways than one.
At my checkups, my doctors reported optimal numbers for my blood pressure — important, since high blood pressure can be a dangerous, and often fatal, side effect of kidney disease.
And with each workout, my stamina and strength improved. I continued to choose healthy foods, especially watching my salt intake, as my doctor recommended. I started to feel confident that my healthy lifestyle was keeping my kidney disease in check and helping my body with both the physical and psychological burdens the disease imposed on it.
A Donor and a New Chapter
At the same time, my family underwent testing to see if anyone would qualify as a donor. When my immediate family didn’t prove to be a match, my sister reached out through social media and, within a month, we discovered that my first cousin, Kurby Brand, would qualify.
On Sept. 14, 2012, Kurby and I were wheeled into surgery at San Antonio Methodist’s transplant center, where I began the next phase of my life.
In the time that has since passed, I’ve gained a new perspective and deeper gratitude for my health and relationships. In May 2013, Ashley and I married in front of our closest family and friends. I am in a better place now; I feel healthier and happier than even before my diagnosis.
Believing myself extremely blessed and lucky, I wanted to educate others about transplant surgery. I started a nonprofit called A Charitable Life (www.acharitablelife.com) to help patients afford the massive expenses accrued in the traveling, testing, and medications involved in organ donation.
My own recent tests all came back better than normal. My doctor told me he believes that part of my smooth recovery can be credited to my efforts to eat right, exercise, and live a healthy lifestyle — and the fact that my donor was healthy as well. As a result, my whole family has developed a healthier lifestyle in an effort to extend the precious time we have together.
I am a changed man in every way. Although I took my health seriously before my diagnosis, I now understand that time and the people we love are the most important things in this life. We can’t take these bodies we inhabit for granted.
Meet: Stephen Preusz, 31, an entrepreneur and founder of www.acharitablelife.com, who lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife, Ashley.
Big Achievement: Staying healthy with food and exercise while he waited for a kidney transplant.
What Worked: Educating himself about kidney health; getting support from family and friends; keeping active and working out regularly at his gym.
What Didn’t: Inaction and negative thinking.
Words of Wisdom: “We are not here very long. Take advantage of every moment we have in this world. If you have the chance to assist others, never hesitate to extend a helping hand.”