For four years, if Bernard Epps of Clinton felt a headache coming he said he took a pain reliever, never realizing the toll the medicine was taking on his kidneys, which began to fail in 2003.
Today, Epps, 46, is on dialysis — a blood-cleaning process that replaces the kidney function — but uses his down time to advise new patients on living with kidney disease. He’ll continue those efforts Saturday at the third annual Kidney Action Day and Walkathon at Landover’s Prince George’s Sports and Learning Complex.
“I used to think this was an old person’s disease, but as I came in [dialysis] and met people, there were people with kidney failure and they had to go on dialysis to live,” Epps said. “It’s not just old people.”
Sponsored by the American Kidney Fund, the walkathon is a fundraiser to help kidney disease patients afford medical treatment.
The AKF decided to host an event in Prince George’s County because its residents suffer high rates of diabetes and hypertension — the leading causes for kidney failure, said Tenee Hawkins, AKF’s senior director of communications and marketing.
Sixteen out of every 100,000 people die from kidney disease annually in Prince George’s County, according to the AKF. There were more than 90,000 kidney disease deaths nationwide as of 2009, the most recent data Hawkins had. There are more than 871,000 county residents, according to 2010 Census data. More than 300 Prince George’s County residents for every 100,000 need emergency medical visits for diabetes compared to 168 people in Montgomery County and the state average of 347 people, according to a July University of Maryland School of Public Health study “Transforming Health in Prince George’s County, Maryland.”
“We screen in Prince George’s County year-round,” Hawkins said. “The vast majority didn’t know they were at risk for kidney disease, so we know we’re in the right place.”
Epps said he also had hypertension but believes his long-term use of pain killers led to his kidney damage. According to the NIH, some pain killers negatively impact kidney function.
Kimberly Buber is a physician’s assistant who assists Epps and other patients at Clinton’s Fresenius Medical Center, where she said about 100 patients come in a week for dialysis. Two-thirds of Buber’s patients have chronic kidney disease and one-third are transplant patient follow-ups, she said.
Epps received a transplant in 2006, but is back on dialysis after his body rejected it in 2010. Epps does not know what caused the rejection, but doctors told him the success rate is as high as 80 percent if the organ comes from a family member.
Buber said even with a transplant a patient is not at 100 percent kidney function and patients can wait up to three years for a match.
“Nothing is as good as what you were born with and nothing we can do is as good as what you were born with,” Buber said. “We get you back to where you can get up and go around.”
As of Thursday, more than 93,000 people nationwide were waiting for a transplant, said Lindsey Kellman, a communications manager for the National Kidney Fund. A total of 1,702 on that list were from Maryland, 1,101 from the District and 2,603 from Virginia as of Aug. 24, Kellman said.
Though Epps admits he was a little sad to have to go back on dialysis, he said he is glad he can act as a liaison between social workers and new families dealing with treatment. He said he exercises, watches his sodium intake and still works 40 hours a week as a District Giant Food manager. Epps said he has not heard yet about a potential transplant.
“If one comes, I’ll be ready to go because I’ve got the prep work done,” Epps said.