Jeff Vanderveen's kidney failure and the miracle of modern medicine

Jeff Vanderveen, 43, unloaded nine tons of steel from his flatbed truck, and went home from work feeling fine. A day later he was in the hospital, spitting up blood, his blood pressure through the roof, on the verge of a deadly heart attack. In only a few hours, Vanderveen’s kidneys had failed completely.

Vanderveen suffered what doctors call acute kidney injury or "kidney attack." Kidney attack can be brought on by a host of factors -- high blood pressure, medication, dehydration or heart problems. The end result is the same: the sudden, life-threatening collapse of kidney function.

According to a report this June in the Journal of the American Medical Association, kidney attack is just as common (about 2 in 1000 people per year) as the more familiar heart attack, and can be more deadly. Kidney attack is sometimes overlooked by both doctors and patients, the authors argue, because it often occurs in the midst of other medical problems. As Vanderveen discovered,  kidney attack can be disastrous on its own.

Vanderveen is  broad-shouldered and bull-chested. Before his illness, he weighed 265 pounds. He was born and raised in a large farming family in Sumas Prairie near Abbotsford, on the rich river flats between the Fraser River and the foot of Mount Baker.

His father taught him to work hard and never say no to a customer. Those values led Vanderveen to build a successful transport business, hauling everything from tractors to chicken manure. On this day, however, those  good values almost killed him.

Vanderveen and his wife, Kathy MacIntee, showed up at the Abbotsford General Hospital in the late morning. Vanderveen had been coughing up blood all night. At the hospital, a nurse took his blood pressure. Vanderveen remembers it was 150/120, high enough to set off alarms and result in hospitalization.

Just after a nurse had taken a blood sample, however, Vanderveen’s cell phone rang. A customer was stuck at the side of the road, and needed Vanderveen to haul him out. Vanderveen answered as he always did: “I’ll be there in 15 minutes.” Despite protests from the hospital staff, he was out the door.

The kidneys are tiny organs, each about the weight of an apple, but they are hard to live without. Kidney tissue filters blood, removing any waste that could cause problems in the body. According to Mike Copland, a nephrologist at the Vancouver General Hospital, one of the most dangerous results of kidney failure is a spike in electrolytes. If potassium in the blood gets too high, for example, it can stop the heart.

When Vanderveen arrived back at the hospital, he found out that his potassium levels were so high that he could have a heart attack at any moment. In addition, his kidneys were only functioning at five per cent. Without  medical intervention, he was going to die.

“I was scared. I was very scared,” Vanderveen said. “I didn’t know what was happening.  I’m a grown man, and nothing happens to me like that.”

“You’re wrong,” McIntee shouted at the doctor when she heard the results. “You’re looking at the wrong test results.”

The doctor -- McIntee can’t remember his name -- shook his head. That was when Vanderveen ran out of the hospital a second time.

Looking back, Vanderveen realizes that by cancelling his driver's licence and sending the police after him, the doctors likely saved his life. Even so, it took his wife, parents and two police officers to coax Vanderveen back to the hospital.

When both kidneys fail, as in Vanderveen’s case, a patient needs to be put through  dialysis -- artificial filtering of the blood. Vanderveen spent his next week in the hospital, undergoing dialysis as well as test after test. One evening, a nurse sat down and told him that she had treated his sister, Suzy, who died of liver failure years earlier in the very same ward.

“I was crying,” Vanderveen remembers. “A 43 year old man, crying in a hallway of the hospital.”

In the end it would be Vanderveen’s other sister, Cindy, who came to his rescue.

When Vanderveen and McIntee returned from the hospital, they spent months searching for a new kidney. They posted messages to Craigslist and Kijiji, called every relative they could think of, and even researched organ donations from India and the Philippines. But in August, Cindy’s tests turned up a match.

Vanderveen will finally get the kidney he needs.  

“It’s like a dark cloud has lifted,” McIntee says. “It’s a new lease on life. Not everyone gets that.”

Since Vanderveen suffered his kidney attack, he has lost more than 40 pounds. He visits the hospital three times a week for dialysis. Where he once worked 12 hour days, he now gets tired after six. Sometimes he will lie down, and a one hour nap will turn into four. But he still goes to work, and refuses to seek disability benefits.

“I’ve got 50 years to go,” he says. “I want to do as much in a lifetime as I can.”

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