One of the challenges to living in Wallowa County — especially for kidney patients — is the lack of a dialysis facility here.
For those whose kidneys are failing, there are a few alternatives: drive to the nearest dialysis center in La Grande several times per week, no matter what the weather, undergo home dialysis, if possible, or get a transplant. It’s a story repeated in many rural communities. Here, the drive is long, the procedure tiring.
For George Ballard, of Joseph, who passed away in March at 76 after fighting kidney disease for 3½ years, a transplant wasn’t an option, his widow, Jennifer Ballard said.
George had previously been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, which produces cancer cells too large for the kidney to filter out and doctors never were able to cure it.
Jennifer noted that kidney patients with other medical conditions or who have a history of drug or alcohol use must be free of these issues for six months before getting on a transplant list.
But George never was cancer-free so he couldn’t be considered for a transplant, she said, adding that the cancer would just ruin a transplanted kidney.
So Jennifer drove George to La Grande several time a week for dialysis, and when she couldn’t because of her full-time job, he took the Community Connection bus there and back. The procedure was both uncomfortable and restrictive. George tried abdominal dialysis for three months during the winter of 2016, but ultimately had a fistula surgically installed that spring so he could go to a dialysis center, as he did the remainder of his life. A fistula is the surgical joining of a vein and an artery to be used in dialysis.
Just the same, it didn’t get him down, she said.
“George was always positive. He never talked about death. He was not negative, he was not depressed,” she said. “I wish I could be half the person that he was.”
“We planned meticulously for everything. But dialysis is expensive,” she said. “It’s like $3,000 a visit three times a week.” Always believers in being debt-free, they were well covered by private insurance, Medicare and George’s Veteran’s Administration coverage.
But it doesn’t always end so bittersweet for everyone. Right now, there are several Wallowa County residents still contending with kidney disease.
Wallowa Memorial Hospital CEO Larry Davy commented that the hospital had looked into offering dialysis treatment, but the expenses of purchasing the equipment was too great for the relatively small number of patients in Wallowa county who needed the treatment. He said that WMH had also tried to collaborate with another provider to offer the service here, but they declined. Davy said that 12 dialysis patients were the minimum number that were needed for the hospital to be able to afford to offer the service in Enterprise.
Katie Jo Morgan, a 36-year-old single mom from Joseph, doesn’t entirely agree.
“We’ve got enough people locally that we should have dialysis available because not everybody is 36 and started out healthy,” she said. “A lot of the people who deal with it are older and not quite as (physically) capable. Regardless of what happens to me, this is an area that would benefit.”
Even if there aren’t the required dozen patients, “They should consider our rurality over the number,” she said, adding that she understands the financial aspect.
There appears to be nothing stopping Morgan from getting on a transplant list. But two years after first applying, the otherwise-healthy woman is still not on one.
“It’s frustrating,” the area native said, unsure of the reason for the delay.
As Morgan’s doctors explained, her kidneys failed because of an immune disorder.
“But I have never been diagnosed with one,” she said. “It’ll still pass some fluid but it won’t filter out any contaminants.”
It was when she finally applied to get on a transplant list two years ago that Morgan learned of the prohibition against smoking marijuana, which she had used to ease the kidney pain. As soon as she learned of the prohibition, she stopped using marijuana and recently learned the state and hospitals will allow oral marijuana use, which she now does only “randomly.”
She had a fistula surgically installed in her wrist around Thanksgiving, which is just now ready for use.
But her health continues to decline. She’s had to be hospitalized twice in the past month for sepsis and a pulmonary embolism related to her condition.
Those hospital stays had friend Alicia Hayes quite worried. Hayes jumped on the bandwagon right after Thanksgiving to help raise the $4,000 hospitals require to cover Morgan’s living costs nearby after a transplant.
“We’ve met and exceeded what we set for her,” Hayes said, noting that the fund is now at $7,100.
Arden Princena, 57, is another local kidney patient who is getting by. So far, the Wallowa man continues a full-time job at the Cheyenne Café in Joseph and does dialysis at home through an abdominal port.
He has stage 4 kidney failure — the most severe — where his kidneys are only functioning at 12% to 15%. He said his kidney disease was caused by Type 2 diabetes.
Although he must continue the home dialysis until he gets a transplant, he’s thankful he doesn’t have to make the thrice-weekly trips to a far-off dialysis center. As it is, he makes a trip to La Grande twice a month for his doctors to keep up on his condition.
Princena said that other than diet, dialysis and immersing his abdomen in fresh water — baths and swimming — he isn’t limited much by his condition. He still hunts, fishes and does other outdoor activities.
“Other than swimming, I can basically do everything I used to do,” he said.
Like others, he’s hoping for a transplant. He’s not yet on a transplant list, since he must still pass some medical tests and blood work.
“I hope to be able to travel without doing dialysis,” he said, seeming upbeat about his condition.
As for the future, Katie Morgan is just getting by, living in an RV parked at her mother’s Joseph home.
“At this point, I’m only capable of day-to-day survival just because of how sick it makes me and how weak,” she said.
Jennifer Ballard is still trying to rebuild her life. Lately, she’s been meeting with a widows club to deal with George’s death and move on. She even lost his cat recently.
“I’m in denial. It’s been rough,” she said. “I kind of pretend he’s working on somebody’s baler across the county. … I just can’t get past that wall to admit I’m not going to see him again. … It’s tough.”