Four years ago, Broadway dancer Jamal Shuriah was given a devastating diagnosis: He had a rare kidney disease and would need a transplant to survive.
Shuriah, a 32-year-old Broadway dancer, was placed on a kidney transplant list and waited. “I lost so much weight in the beginning,” he tells Yahoo Life. “I had no energy. My muscles started to deteriorate.”
Shuriah began to receive four treatments of kidney dialysis daily, a treatment that filters the blood to rid the body of harmful wastes, extra salt, and water in people whose kidneys do not function normally, so that he could continue to perform each night. While he had a catheter in his lower abdomen, he hid it with the help of special shorts and kept his diagnosis a secret from his colleagues.
“No one could tell,” Shuriah says. He started working more and had to focus on his diet to stay healthy, especially focusing on his levels of phosphorus, a mineral needed for the body to make protein for the growth, maintenance, and repair of cells and tissues, which can be deficient in people with serious kidney issues. “I’d have good months—I’d have checkups every month,” he says. “Sometimes the levels were good, and sometimes they were not.”
If he had an early performance, Shuriah would need to do two dialysis treatments, do his performance, and do two more treatments afterward. “That was always draining, taxing on my body,” he says. Meanwhile, he says, his health was getting “worse and worse.”
Help came in the form of a cellist named Sam Quiggins he had worked with. Quiggins wasn’t a match for Shuriah—kidney donors have to have the same blood type as patients as well as other similarities—so he volunteered to participate in a paired kidney exchange program. As part of the program, Quiggins would donate a kidney to a stranger and Shuriah would be moved to the top of the transplant list to receive a kidney from the next matching donor.
Shuriah eventually received a match and was able to undergo transplant surgery on Dec. 16, 2020. While he says the surgery was initially a “great success,” he became seriously ill days later. “I was in so much pain. I've never been in that much pain in my life,” he says. Shuriah had developed an intestinal infection from the surgery. Doctors performed several surgeries on him, but Shuriah’s new kidney clotted and died.
“That whole time I was just laying in bed and I couldn't walk. I couldn't stand,” he says. “I feel like I blacked out for a week.”
Unfortunately, Shuriah isn’t the only one to receive a new kidney that doesn’t last—but it’s not common to lose a transplant so fast.
"While no kidney will last forever, a kidney transplant is expected to last for several years,” Dr. Dinee C. Simpson, a transplant surgeon at Northwestern Medicine, tells Yahoo Life.”It's very uncommon to lose a kidney so quickly, and its a devastating event for all involved."
Simpson says there are “a number of factors” that can impact how long a kidney will last, including the age of the donor and the health of the donor. An infection can also shorten the lifespan of the kidney, Simpson says.
Another potential reason is the body rejecting the kidney, Dr. Alejandro Diez, a nephrologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “As a transplant nephrologist, rejection is what keeps me up at night and one of the most feared complications in a transplanted kidney,” he says. To prevent this from happening, a patient is given special immunosuppressive medications to keep the immune system from recognizing and rejecting foreign tissues. Diez says the medications “have improved dramatically” over time but “they are not perfect.” They’re also expensive.
“Even with all conditions being perfect, a kidney transplant isn’t going to last forever,” Simpson says. “Particularly if a patient is younger, they’re likely going to be looking at needing a second kidney in their lifetime.”
Health disparities are an issue for Black Americans with kidney disease.
Health disparities for Black Americans waiting for a transplant are "huge," Simpson says.
"Black people represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet we represent 35 percent of those with chronic kidney disease," she says. "But even though we are more likely to develop kidney disease, we are also less likely to be referred to transplant or a kidney expert before we need to be on dialysis—that's a big problem." As a result, Simpson says, Black patients are less likely to be referred to a specialist before their disease has progressed to an advanced level and are less likely to get listed for transplant. As a result, they’re less likely to actually receive a transplant. "There are a whole slew of barriers that patients can face with getting treatment and seeing a specialist,” Simpson says.
Help arrives in an unlikely form.
Kim Constantinesco, a living donor who had been thinking about donation for years, donated the kidney to Shuriah. Constantinesco tells Yahoo Life that she finally decided to donate one of her kidneys during the pandemic. “COVID or no COVID I know that people still need kidneys and I wanted to donate at a time when other non-directed donors potentially might not think to donate, or they might not have the time or energy to donate,” she says. “There’s been so much life lost this year…I wanted to inject freedom into someone's life who has been going through the grueling treatment of dialysis.”
Once Constantinesco was matched with Shuriah, she didn’t get a lot of details about him. However, she was situated near him during the pre-operation phase and overheard his name and age. “During recovery, curiosity got the best of me and I ended up searching his name online,” she says. “And that's when some of his social media accounts popped up. And I had learned that the kidney had been rejected four days after surgery.”
Constantinesco says the news was “heartbreaking” and “disappointing,” adding, “I knew Jamal was going back on the transplant list.”
Constantinesco learned from her surgeon that Shuriah wanted to meet her at some point. So, she emailed him through the website FindJamalaKidney.com, which was set up by a few of Shuriah’s friends.
“I still wanted to be part of this process of getting Jamal the kidney that he needs,” Constantinesco says. “Ultimately, I saw that his community really rallied around him and he deserves to have the chance to go after his goals on stage and in everyday life. The world needs him.”
Constantinesco says she and Shuriah have been texting about their own recoveries. “We’re taking some small steps and just building a relationship,” she says. Constantinesco has also spoken out about Shuriah’s need for a kidney and urged others to consider becoming a living kidney donor.
Constantinesco says she decided to share her experience “in hopes that it will drive some conversation around living organ donation.”
“I hope Jamal gets the kidney that works for him as soon as possible,” she says. “And I hope he goes on to fulfill the biggest dreams that he has in life.”
Shuriah is back on the transplant list and waiting for a new kidney. He’s also struggling to be as active as he was before. “I get fatigued within maybe two minutes of standing,” he says. “The thought of even dancing is…I couldn't, I couldn't. And I wish I could.”
Shuriah urges other people with kidney disease to have hope. “You can tough it out,” he says. “Dialysis is hard, but …you can get through it. And as long as you keep up with your meds and the treatments and process itself, you can definitely get through it.”
He also urges people to consider becoming a living kidney donor: “If you have it in your heart to donate, I think you should.”
Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove
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