Photo by Sydney Cromwell.
Lorraine, Stephen and Al Dabney sit inside their Hoover home. Stephen, who has dialysis three days a week, has been on the kidney transplant list at three regional hospitals for four years.
For Stephen Dabney, life has a distinct dividing point — there’s life before dialysis, and there’s life after dialysis.
Before dialysis, Stephen was a regular at the Exceptional Foundation in Homewood, and he competed in Special Olympics and traveling teams across the country in basketball, volleyball, golf, power lifting, softball and tennis. He has boxes of medals and trophies from his years of competition, and he was able to travel independently to visit family or friends.
“My daddy used to say, ‘Stephen’s life is one big vacation,’ because he was always going or doing,” his mother, Lorraine Dabney, said.
Now that Stephen has dialysis three days a week, he can no longer participate in travel teams and is often too tired to play sports or hang out with his friends.
“With Stephen, social is everything. Interacting with people is his game, and it’s curtailed that,” said his father, Al Dabney. “It’s limited his life.”
“This is just really tying him down,” Lorraine agreed.
The Dabneys are from Birmingham originally and returned to Hoover in 1998 after living in Houston, Texas. Stephen is 41 years old. He first began showing signs of kidney problems about seven years ago, and Lorraine said doctors believe some sort of virus or infection attacked both kidneys.
About three years later, Stephen’s kidney function had so greatly decreased that he had to begin dialysis and be added to the kidney transplant lists at UAB, Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville and Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta.
According to Martha Tankersley, UAB’s transplant administrator, about 3,000 people in Alabama are waiting for a kidney transplant. UAB performs between 80 and 120 living donor transplants per year, and the average wait time is three to five years.
Patients on the list are prioritized by age, health situation and the length of time they’ve been on dialysis, Tankersley said. Transplant recipients must also have compatible blood and tissue tests with their donor.
“We want to have kidneys that are of the quality to last a long time for patients that are likely to need them for a long time,” Tankersley said.
Stephen’s parents and older brother Buddy are all unable to donate due to health issues. A few friends have offered but have not been matches. Stephen has Type B blood, which Lorraine said is one of the more difficult blood types to match.
So, the wait for a new kidney continues.
“He’s good, thank God, it’s just how long are we going to have to wait?” Lorraine said.
While they wait for a donor, Stephen has dialysis every Monday, Wednesday or Friday morning. Lorraine said her son is considered the “rockstar” of the dialysis center. However, the lifesaving treatments take a physical toll on him. Stephen must adhere to a high-protein diet and limit intake of dairy and high salt, potassium or phosphorus foods. He’s tired most days once he completes treatment, and often on Sunday when he’s gone two days without treatment. Stephen’s forearm, still muscular from years of athletics, has raised fistulas where the dialysis needle is placed.
“Everybody’s got the misconception that dialysis is no problem at all. Believe me when I tell you it’s a big deal. It really is. It ravages some of these people,” Al said. “Where you and I have seven days of good days … they only have four.”
When Stephen was first added to the transplant list, Lorraine said they did not spread the news beyond close family and friends. Now, however, they are trying to reach out to more people in hopes of finding a donor before Stephen’s health gets worse.
“His life was so full,” Lorraine said. “He’s always been just the one up front and center in anything that goes on [at the Exceptional Foundation], until this.”
Still, it’s difficult for the Dabneys even to ask.
“How do you approach someone?” Al said.
Al and Lorraine believe many people are hesitant to be living donors because of fears about the surgery and health risks afterward. However, Tankersley said new, minimally invasive procedures mean donors are typically in the hospital for only a couple days after surgery.
“I think people are scared or don’t know,” Lorraine said.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, the remaining kidney in a living donor will increase in size to compensate for the donated one’s absence. Donors can go on to live regular lives, making some modifications to protect the remaining kidney, with no changes to their life expectancy or likelihood of kidney failure, the Foundation says on its website.
Tankersley also said that UAB has a cross-match program, where they match two sets of incompatible donors and recipients with each other if each donor matches the opposite recipient. That way, two patients can receive a kidney even if they don’t have a family member or friend who is compatible with them.
If the Dabneys can find a donor for Stephen, his energy will return and he’ll be able to travel, play sports and spend time with friends again, without being held down by the dialysis machine.
“We just want life to get back to normal for him,” Lorraine said.
Birmingham Kidney Walk
- WHERE: Samford University Track and Soccer Stadium
- WHEN: April 30, 9:30 a.m.
- WHAT: Fundraising goal of $185,000
- WEB: birminghamkidneywalk.org