Living, Not Just Surviving with ESRD
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Living, Not Just Surviving with ESRD

By Carmen Critchlow

My name is Carmen Critchlow and I live in Battle Creek, Michigan. I am 47 years old and have lived with ESRD (end-stage renal disease) since I was 23. In 1984 I received my first kidney transplant from my little brother, Ramon. I was very grateful to him for his gift of love and life! Although the kidney was a very good match, I was very ill after the second or third month and was rejecting almost every week. I felt like a zombie: full of the immunosuppressant drugs I was taking to keep my kidney alive, and suffering from weakness in my body and mind. I was in and out of the hospital for most of the 10 years that I had that kidney. During that decade, I struggled to keep a positive attitude for my two small children and for my husband. In 1993 the kidney finally rejected for good. Although I was saddened to let my brother down, I was relieved to get off the emotional roller coaster my family and I had been on for those 10 years. I went back on hemodialysis and tried to come to terms with my disease.

At 7:30 a.m. on August 29, 1994, I got the call that many patients fear they will never receive: ‘We have a kidney for you!’ I’d been told that the wait would be anywhere from 5-6 years! Without hesitation we left for the transplant center to receive yet another gift of life. I prayed that this time things would work out better, and that my family and I would finally get back to a ‘normal life.’

That summer I got brittle bone disease and had parathyroid surgery, but I was enjoying overall good health. I had enough energy to get a job to help my husband with the heavy burden of medical bills we had accumulated from the two transplants and the drugs. The good fortune was short-lived, however.

In November of 1995, my family noticed that I began acting childlike and incoherent, and had stopped taking my medications. My family thought I was trying to commit suicide and decided to take me to the transplant center. On the way, I had a seizure and collapsed into shock. I woke up in the transplant center with a vascular catheter. It turned out that the 47-50 Tums® I was taking each day were not enough to keep my calcium levels normal—I had lapsed into hypocalcemia. (I was later told that very low calcium levels can cause mental confusion. This explained my behavior!) My kidney rejected, and I was back on hemodialysis. The worst part of the whole ordeal was that my family thought I had done it to myself on purpose!

I didn’t want to go back to hemodialysis, so I decided to try peritoneal dialysis (PD). With PD I had a remarkable freedom for the first time in many years! To celebrate our 23rd anniversary, my husband and I were even able to go on a trip to my home country of Panama. Life was wonderful again!

But four years later, I was back in the hospital with peritonitis, fighting for my life. My life was spared, but I lost my peritoneal catheter and had to go back on hemodialysis. I lapsed into a depression that took over my life. For months, I was not living, but merely going through the minimal motions of survival. I was very depressed and this time I didn’t want to live.

A phone call from one of my sisters changed my life. I was having a pity party and poured out my sob story to her and whined, as usual. In no uncertain terms, she told me to stop feeling sorry for myself, to focus on what I had and not on what I didn’t and couldn’t do anything about. That phone call saved me. I thought of my children: they were growing up without me. Sometimes I didn’t even get out of bed to see them off to school, telling myself, ‘What’s the point?’ What a pathetic existence I was leading. I took a good look at myself and thought about how my family must see me—a weak, helpless human being instead of the happy, outgoing young woman I was before kidney disease took over my life. I didn’t want my family to continue to live with a weakling! I asked God to forgive me for doubting him, to give me the courage to get through whatever I had to face day to day, and to help me show my family strength, love, and courage instead of helplessness.

Today, my prayers continue to be answered by the small triumphs I see every day. I am currently on hemodialysis, and waiting for another transplant, but I am not that pathetic person I used to be. I am a Spanish translator for the local hospital and businesses. I became a mentor and started a support group for my dialysis center, and am also a Gift of Life volunteer, speaking to groups and individuals about the importance of organ and tissue donation. In 2001, I wrote a book about my physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual struggles of living with ESRD. The book, entitled, ‘The Courage to Live: My Journey with God. A Kidney Patient’s Story,’ is also translated into Spanish, and will be available soon for Spanish-speaking patients and families both here and abroad.Carmen Critchlow I am also working on another book entitled, ‘Panama: Crossroads of the World—My Reflections of Childhood,’ which should also be available soon.

I continue to have my struggles, but because I have a very loving and supportive family, we face those struggles with courage and perseverance. I know that renal failure will always be a part of my life, I can’t change that. But I will never again let it rule and take over my life. TODAY I AM LIVING, NOT JUST SURVIVING!

I invite you to share my story. To order or sponsor a printing of any of my books, go to

Name: Carmen Critchlow
Address: Battle Creek, MI
Date: February 2005