Dickson City man waiting for a kidney
By Erin L. Nissley (Staff WriteR)
Published: February 12, 2012

Jake Danna Stevens / Staff Photographer

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Tubing takes Christopher Polk’s blood through a dialysis machine.

"The key to this is patience. If you laugh every day, you will get thought it," he said.

At first, Chris Polk thought he was just taking a little longer than usual to get over a winter cold. But long after his cough went away, the Dickson City man found himself dozing off on the couch after breakfast and napping after finishing a shift at hhgregg. His skin faded from a healthy tan to an ashen gray. No amount of clothing could stop his constant shivering, and a dry, itchy rash spread down his legs.

By mid-March - three months after he began feeling sick - he began vomiting so often it was almost a waste of time to eat. When he started coughing up blood, he decided to make an appointment with a doctor.

"I thought, you know, 'I'm a healthy guy,' he said."I'm probably working too much and I need to get off my feet for a couple of days.

"The truth, though, was much more alarming. Just hours after his doctor received the results of Chris' blood test, he was rushed to Mercy Hospital's emergency room. There, medical staff stuck needles in Chris' arm to withdraw blood - enough to fill 49 vials - to further pinpoint why his body seemed to be shutting down. "They came down and told me, 'You have kidney failure,'" he said. "I was dumbfounded. I didn't know what that meant."

Chris was transferred to Moses Taylor Hospital's intensive care unit. His mother, Joanne, and his father, Gregory, hovered by his hospital bed, watching as doctors and nurses poked Chris with needles, recorded his vital signs and hooked him up to machines.

"I kept asking, 'Is my son dying? Is he dying?'" Joanne said. "I was terrified. I didn't know what was going on."

Chris spent six weeks in the hospital, where he underwent a kidney biopsy and several other surgical procedures. He was released on April 22, two weeks after he turned 22.
Despite all the tests and procedures, doctors have not pinpointed a reason why his kidneys failed. The lack of answers does not change two facts that have become Chris' reality - he needs a new kidney to get well and he will likely wait years before he gets one.
Joanne has been working with her church, Chris' Boy Scout troop and other community groups to plan events that could help raise the money necessary for a transplant and spread the word about kidney donation. In addition, she hopes to get some help in launching a website about Chris' plight and maybe find a donor."I've heard stories about using the Internet to find kidney donors," she said. "We just want to get the information out there."

Until a donor is found, Chris must report to a clinic three days a week to undergo dialysis, which cleans toxins from his blood. He and his family are struggling to pay medical bills left over from his hospital stays last year and are saving up the $8,000 it will cost them for a kidney transplant. "We live paycheck to paycheck now," Joanne said, adding that she was laid off in 2010 and her husband works two jobs to support the family. "It's just really been hard.

More than 122,000 people are waiting for organ transplants, and about 96,600 of those are waiting for a kidney, according to statistics kept by the United Network of Organ Sharing. Each year, hospitals across the U.S. do about 6,000 surgeries to transplant kidneys, hearts, lungs and other organs, according to Chintalapati Varma, M.D., director of transplantation surgery for Geisinger Health System. While waiting for word on a possible match, Chris carries around a small black pager. The likelihood it will go off soon is small.
In Northeast Pennsylvania, people who need a kidney usually wait four to five years before a match is found, Dr.Varma said."It's torture," Dr. Varma said, explaining that patients must undergo up to four hours of dialysis three to four times a week. "Also, being on dialysis long-term can lead to complications."Despite the odds, the pager never leaves Chris' side.         "It's a waiting game," he said. "You never know when it might go off."
A little more than half of all kidney transplants around the world use donations from people who have died, according to Manish Gupta, M.D., a transplantation surgeon at Geisinger Health System. Many patients who need a kidney see better results if they receive one from a living donor. Cadaver kidneys usually last anywhere from eight to 10 years, doctors said. A kidney from a living donor can last 18 to 20 years."A kidney transplant is a treatment, not a cure," Dr. Gupta said, adding that younger recipients will often have to undergo more than one kidney transplant in their lifetimes. "If you don't know what caused the kidney failure, there's a chance the kidneys could fail again."No one in Chris' family is a suitable match, so he holds out hope that someone in the community will step forward to help him.
"It's hard for me to sit here and ask for help," Chris said. "For me to be the person who has to ask for something - it's just really hard."    
Chris, who graduated from Mid Valley High School in 2007, has spent most of his life helping others. When he was young, he began volunteering for the Northeastern Pennsylvania Philharmonic, where his mother once worked. He has also been involved with the Boy Scouts since he was young. For his Eagle Scout project, Chris renovated the basement of the Lackawanna Historical Society's Catlin House. He remains involved with Troop No. 322 as an assistant leader.
He lives in Dickson City with his parents. His older sister, 26-year-old Sarah, lives nearby. More than two years ago, Chris began working full-time at hhgregg as a salesman, but his illness has forced him to cut back his hours. Because of a mix-up at work, he had no health insurance when he became sick and was hospitalized. His mother was able to get him temporary insurance coverage through Geisinger Health Plan. It did not cover all of the hospitals' charges, however. And when the insurance ran out April 30, Chris was rejected for permanent coverage because his kidney failure was a pre-existing condition. Eventually, Chris was able to join his father's United Health Care plan. By then, his unpaid hospital bills had soared to more than $15,000, Joanne said.
The family has managed to pay most of the bills off, but the $8,000 co-pay for a kidney transplant still looms. The mounting financial pressures combined with the worries about her son's health make it hard for Joanne to think of anything else. "I wouldn't wish this on anyone," she said. "It's just devastating."
Adding to the stress was a five-month delay in putting Chris on the active list for a transplant. He is being treated at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center, which is not in his insurance's network. Until the hospital and the insurance company could work out an arrangement, Chris could not be placed on the active transplant list. Whether the delay impacted how quickly Chris could get a kidney is anyone's guess, Joanne said.   
Even though asking for help does not come easily to the Polk family, people who know them have been quietly spreading the word. In December, a short story about Chris ran in the weekly bulletin of the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where the Polks attend church, generating a few donations. MetLife in Clarks Summit, where Gregory works as a systems analyst, also donated money to the family this month.
Joanne is planning fundraisers of her own, hoping to spread the word about Chris' plight and kidney disease in general, which she said does not get as much attention as other diseases."It feels like we're alone in this process," she said. "There's no place to connect with other people going through this."
While waiting for a kidney, Chris spends about 12 hours a week sitting in a beige easy chair at the Davita Clinic off the Morgan Highway. Tubes connected to his left forearm carry his blood into a machine, where it is cleaned and then circulated back into him. He insists that the procedure does not hurt and barely looks at the bright red blood flowing through the clear tubes. Instead, he watches television on the small screen suspended near his chair or listens to music through headphones attached to his cell phone. On top of his blue bag on a side table, his pager sits silently, its display turned to face him.    "There's good days and there's bad days," he said. "Sometimes I think, I'm only 22. When will I get a kidney? How much longer do I have to get stuck with needles?"
He tries to approach the situation with a sense of humor, quick to crack a joke when his mother chokes up. But he gets frustrated with the lack of answers about why his kidneys failed, especially since there is no history of kidney disease in his family. He also worries about the future.

"My biggest fear is that they don't find a match for me," he said. "It's just so hard to stay positive, to help everyone else to stay positive."

With the number of people waiting for a kidney reaching into the tens of thousands, many people like Chris Polk hold out hope that a living donor can be found. But living donors have to meet very specific criteria before the donation can go through, according to Manish Gupta, M.D., transplantation surgeon at Geisinger Health System. Donors must be at least 18 and, in most cases, no older than 60 and be perfectly healthy. Before the donation can go through, doctors and other medical officials must also be confident that the donor has not been coerced in any way. And while the donated kidney must match the recipient's blood type - in Chris's case type B positive - there are programs through which swaps can be arranged between multiple donors and recipients across the country, Dr. Gupta said. Once the donation is approved, surgery is relatively simple for the donor. Most are released from the hospital within two days and can be back to work within two weeks, Dr. Gupta said. The cost of the surgery is covered for donors, too.
For the recipient, the surgery is not as easy. In addition to a longer hospital stay, recipients also require extensive follow-up visits with doctors and an intense regimen of anti-rejection medication. Just how long the donated kidney will last depends a lot on the patient, Dr. Gupta said.

Contact the writer: enissley@timesshamrock.com