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Updated: January 26, 2013 03:41 IST

Nancy Spaeth—an inspiring saga of survival

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Nancy H. Spaeth, who received For the Sake of Honour Award at the 20th TANKER Annual Charity and Awards Nite 2013 held in Chennai on Friday. Photo: S.S.Kumar
The Hindu
Nancy H. Spaeth, who received For the Sake of Honour Award at the 20th TANKER Annual Charity and Awards Nite 2013 held in Chennai on Friday. Photo: S.S.Kumar

She brims with energy even after many kidney transplants and breast cancer

Meet the woman who has known many kidneys, breast cancer, divorce, skiing, mountain hiking, two children and three grandchildren. Meet Nancy Spaeth, nurse, anti-salt campaigner, survivor.

Nancy Spaeth is an inspiration when she talks, but then, Nancy is an inspiration by just being. For someone who was diagnosed with kidney disease in 1959, Nancy defies the public image of a patient who has undergone four kidney transplants. Oh, and one other major surgery, for breast cancer. On stage in Chennai on Friday, delivering the Krishna Ang Tanker Foundation Endowment lecture organised by Tanker Foundation, Nancy did more than talk — she also did some brisk squats.

Though many in the audience winced as the 66-year-old sat and rose with great energy, squatting probably means squat to the woman who has skied and climbed all the mountains she wanted to, despite a lifelong condition.

It was in September of 1959 when Nancy’s urine turned brown, that she was diagnosed with kidney disease. Recalling those days, as she has probably done countless times since, Nancy says she did not worry too much about her illness; she just went on doing the things she loved to do, including competitive skiing, water aerobics, remembering only to watch her diet. Salt was the enemy, she figured early.

A normal person does not need more than 25 mg of salt a day, she says. “When I go to restaurants, I ask them what they have got that has no salt, they are happy to serve me ...” the crusader against salt adds. The only pinch of salt she takes is with her kidney disease, determined not to believe the worst it can do.

The way Nancy sees her glass, it is half full. It was in 1996, after she got really sick while studying at University, she was allowed to start her dialysis at Seattle Artificial Kidney Centre. “People are dying across the world. They picked a few of us to live,” she says. She also shows a happy family photo, of herself surrounded by her loved ones.

Pointing to a tall gentleman in the left, she explains, “That’s my brother Charlie, if he had not donated his kidney, no one else in the picture would be here.”

Nancy got her first transplant in 1972, her brother donating his kidney. Two years later, she had her first child, a son Josh, and in 1976, her daughter Sarah. Seven years later, in 1979, an episode of food poisoning killed her donated kidney. It was not a good time she was also going through a divorce. But with her chin up, she began dialysis at home, four hours, three days a week, and began nursing school. “No, it was not all easy, it was really tough,” she admits later, during a question-and-answer session, but in her speech, makes home dialysis sound like a breeze.

Coping, for her, means exercising, watching what one eats, reframing thoughts positively and setting goals. She went on with dialysis, until July of 1981, when she got her second transplant, the kidney from a young woman who was declared brain-dead. She went back to school, and graduated to land a job in the urology and nephrology wards, working nights. Five years later, that kidney failed too, and she was once again back on dialysis.

Meanwhile, she built her house, with help, but doing some of the stuff herself. After two-and-a-half years, another cadaveric kidney arrives.

In 1995 that failed too. She begins Continuous Ambulatory Peritoneal Dialysis at home, and plays the waiting game, turning 50 two years later. As if this were not enough to bring a person down, Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1999, and had to undergo surgery. One year on, she received her fourth kidney. Currently, she works for the State of Washington, assisting injured workers in their return back to work.

A breathless audience, sighed, stood and applauded. It is not often that a room full of people come across a woman who has kicked the kidney disease in the derrière so comprehensively.

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