Marshmallow Mondays


In Sickness & In Health, by Ryan Buffington

I remember the day I was diagnosed with diabetes.  My dad took me to the doctor because my vision was blurry, and I had continued to lose weight like crazy. We rode the Harley there that night. It’s not often my dad goes anywhere without his Harley. The doctors quickly checked my sugar and told me that their glucose meter didn’t register a reading. They have seen this before and knew immediately that my sugar was too high. They estimated it to be somewhere around 600 that night. For those of you who don’t know anywhere between 70 and 120 is normal. It was there I got my first shot of insulin. I remember it like it was yesterday!  I can remember going home after that appointment and burying my face in a pillow and crying. Thinking about how unfair it was. It was so difficult for me to swallow. I had been an athlete and always felt that I could keep up with the best of them. However, my body was telling me different. I was 20 years old and a diabetic.

Diabetes wordcloudI was placed in the care of an endocrinologist at Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, PA.  I did my best to control my sugar. I tried pills, but eventually determined that oral medication wasn’t going to work. I gave myself insulin injections four times a day for the next 15 years. Trust me, I knew the statistics. Diabetics die from strokes and heart diseases at twice the rate of others.  A huge percentage of leg and foot amputations can result because of diabetes. And, diabetes is the new leading cause of blindness. Of course, there is also the large number of diabetics that suffer nerve damage as well. The disease had already taken away one of my true loves, baseball. As a catcher with blurry vision things weren’t exactly working out so well, as you can imagine.

weddingMy story really begins when I married the love of my life, the mother of my children and my greatest supporter. In 2012 we moved to Kentucky. Bridgit and I felt that making this move was important to show our children that change and opportunities don’t always come knocking, and you can’t be scared to try uncomfortable things. Our story starts with my health suddenly taking a turn for the worse shortly thereafter.

It started rather quickly as my sugars became extremely hard to control. My endocrinologist here in Lexington quickly determined that I would be a great candidate for an insulin pump. Today’s technology sounded really exciting, and I was ready to take that next step towards caring for my diabetic future. I thought it sounded great in practice because this would end the need for the four insulin shots a day. It was a short time after that when I really began to experience sugar levels that were extremely low lows and extremely high highs. It was terrifying.

When my sugars got low I could not think clearly. I became irrational, and Bridgit would probably say “difficult.”  I can remember arguing over things like whether or not to pack peanut butter crackers for a family trip to Target (in the event of a low sugar episode, these helped get me back to a normal range). I could see how this was wearing on my family. My son, Rydan, (now 11) would ask his mom, “is dad alright?”  My daughter, Lily, (now 5) would ask “does daddy need orange juice?”  They were so in touch with my health problems that they just couldn’t be kids. Bridgit bore all this stress. She wore it all over her face; I couldn’t help but to notice. Even more dangerous was when my sugars went very low. I could lose awareness and then consciousness. Lily began to associate the ambulances here in Lexington with her daddy’s illness.

The first time I lost consciousness was the day Bridgit asked me to make a quick trip to Kroger. It wasn’t long after walking into the store that I started feeling bad. I grabbed your typical milk, bread and eggs store order. The last thing I remember was grabbing a candy bar and beginning to open it right there in the store as I felt my sugar had dipped dangerously low. What felt like moments later I woke up surrounded by Lexington’s finest and a “yard sale” of grocery items. That day firefighters and EMTs cared for me until I was feeling safe enough to go home. I went home empty handed and had to explain what had just happened to Bridgit. At the time I told myself that this was going to be a one-time occurrence and that it was a fluke.

As my sugars continued to fluctuate up and down, my vision began to suffer. My first visit to an eye doctor here in Lexington exposed the root cause of some serious issues with my vision. I was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy, which is freely bleeding blood vessels in the eyes. A short time after this visit my vision was gone. There is nothing more frightening than being blind. I could no longer see my children, work, watch television or even walk to the church pew without holding my wife’s hand for guidance. An eye surgery called a vitrectomy was performed to remove the bleeding and restore my vision. It was a great success and I give thanks to Dr. Thompson and Dr. Sen every day for that.

As we all know, with any surgery there can be complications. Late one night after the surgery I was awakened lying in a pool of sweat surrounded by neighbors and a group of EMTs. Bridgit later told me that I began to have seizure-like shakes and wasn’t responsive when she tried to wake me. The only thing she knew to do was call 911. We had moved into such a close knit neighborhood that everyone came running when they realized that the ambulance was stopping at our house. While at the hospital it was determined that my sugar had dipped down into the 30s. Even with the chaos that night my children remained sleeping and never knew what had happened. Our neighbor offered to stay with the kids so that Bridgit could come to the hospital with me. We honestly have great friends in Lexington always willing to go above and beyond for us through these tough times. It was my first ride in an ambulance here in Lexington, but not my last.

Blood_Glucose_TestingIt was at that moment I needed to help set Bridgit’s mind at ease, or at least try. She began to lose sleep. She was so worried about me. It was then that I began to set an alarm for 3am every night. I would wake up, walk into the bathroom to test my sugar and look at myself in the mirror. I needed to make sure I was still alive. I know it sounds extreme, but it was what it was. It was my life as I knew it.

A few weeks later as I was sitting in the living room watching football on TV I started feeling bad again. I was fortunate to be able to feel symptoms of low sugar episodes and try to self-medicate. There are some diabetics that don’t have that luxury.  As I began to make my way to the kitchen to grab some sweets I hit the floor like a sack of potatoes. Bridgit was quick to react. She had been upstairs and heard the thump and came running. Being unresponsive, Bridgit once again not knowing what had happened and assuming my sugar went Glucagon_kitdangerously low, called 911. She then made a decision that may have saved my life; she grabbed a glucagon pen and injected me. We had been given a glucagon pen during one of my first visits to the endocrinologist and Bridgit was there to learn how to use it. Glucagon is a medicine that tells the body to release sugar into the blood. I believe the thought of having to give me a shot scared her, but she didn’t hesitate. I believe we both thought we would never actually have to use it.

It was at Graeter’s Ice Cream in Lexington when my children saw me collapse for the first time. Bridgit and I decided to treat the kids to ice cream one afternoon. I remember hitting the floor and waking up in the back of an ambulance. Obviously disoriented I remember the ambulance pulling away with my family sitting there on the curb. To this day, my kids associate Graeters with the place that daddy got taken away in the ambulance.

After months and months of doctor visits and tests of all kinds, it was determined that I was in stage 4 kidney failure. I had a pair of kidneys that were performing at 33%. I was also told that I was anemic and that was a large factor in my energy levels being so bad. My kidney doctors here in Lexington wanted me to start thinking about a kidney transplant as patients typically start dialysis around 15% kidney function. It was a month later when I met with Dr. Amit Govil and those talks became reality.  My kidney function was now 24% and was declining extremely quickly. Dr. Govil asked me one simple question that day and I struggled severely to answer. He asked me why I wanted a kidney transplant. It was then and there that I began to think about my children and wife and the terrible last few years that I had dragged them through. I told him that I wanted to be around for them. Dr. Govil proceeded to tell me that it wasn’t going to be an easy road and that I needed to also want it for myself. He stressed to me that the wait could be anywhere from months to years and that with the rapid decline in my kidney function that I would need to be prepared for dialysis.

This is when Bridgit took to social media. It was amazing to see the power of social media at work. Just a few weeks after posting a story on her weekly blog, Bridgit had over 6,200 views and created a Facebook page called A Match for Ryan AMFR_CoverImage which was reaching the masses as well. It was awesome to see how many people “liked” and “shared” our story. What my wife had begun to do for kidney disease awareness was truly inspiring. Her readers were stepping up to be potential donors at record pace. The list included friends, family, friends of friends and people who we never met. The first of those people was Nicole Nelson, a resident of California (yes, 2500 miles away) who was originally from Pennsylvania. I had to giggle to myself after hearing that she was willing to donate me a kidney if I was going to be able to live with the fact that my new kidney would be coming from a huge Cubs fan. As a devoted Phillies fan it was going to be difficult, but after weighing the options I caved in.  At a time when I was really feeling down and out I needed the baseball humor. The list of other potential donors had grown to over 25 people, and the University Hospital in Cincinnati was actually telling us to take the foot off the gas pedal as they were being overwhelmed. I will be forever grateful for everyone who has stepped up and put their name on that list, for finding the genuine compassion in their hearts to help me and my family in a time of need.

Project-University-Hospital-Operating-Room-Renovation-1It was March 19th 2014; in Cincinnati at University Hospital. That day Bridgit and I sat around a table of elderly people and listened to a presentation on kidney transplantation. It was a bit overwhelming; I clearly was the youngest in the room. Kidney disease doesn’t only affect the elderly, it doesn’t have a type. Young, old, skinny or overweight it doesn’t discriminate. Little did I know that I was about to go on the ride of my life. From this presentation Bridgit and I were shuttled off to a smaller room where we were about to meet the transplant team.

First there was Darlene, our transplant coordinator. She greeted us with such a big smile and could sense our nervousness.  She assured us that she was there for us every step of the way. She quickly became more than just member of the team.  She became a friend. Darlene was that model employee we all dream about. University Hospital should be proud to have had her. She is one who actually cares, gets to know you as a person, understand your worries and fills your heart with hope.  It was at this meeting with Darlene where she told me that I was going to meet Dr. Tayyub Diwan, one of the surgeons, and he was going to walk me through the procedure, recovery and aftercare.

DiwanI can still remember meeting Dr. Diwan. He was confident and matter of fact. He was wearing a perfectly tailored suit and was sporting a clean shaven head. He was the smartest man in the building. For most people it would be easy not to like him as he appeared to have it all. I liked him immediately. He expressed to me that a kidney transplant alone would only be a temporary fix and that my diabetes would eventually destroy my new kidney. It was the first time I had heard of a simultaneous kidney pancreas transplant, and he encouraged me to consider it. This type of transplant treats both kidney failure and diabetes because the new organs replace the function of the failed kidney and the pancreas. Dr. Diwan talked to Bridgit and me about the procedure and warned us of all the risk and complexities of the surgery. In 2012, only about 800 of these procedures were completed in the United States and 10% of those were failures. He then asked us if we had any questions. I can remember Bridgit asking several questions that day but don’t ask me what any of them were. I was so taken back by Dr. Diwan and his confidence that I could only muster two questions.

“How old are you?”  “Older than you think, 40” he replied.

“Can you perform this surgery?”  I believe Dr. Diwan was amused by the question as he answered, “a kidney/pancreas transplant? Yes, of course I can do it.”

I can remember riding home from Cincinnati that day and telling Bridgit, “there is one thing I am sure of and I want that guy doing the surgery!”  After meeting Dr. Diwan and listening to the benefits of a simultaneous kidney pancreas transplant I was all in.

After meeting the transplant team I had to complete a series of test. Some of the tests included blood work, heart and lung function, social and psychological evaluation and neurological tests to evaluate the loss of sensation in my hands and feet.  While undergoing these tests my wife was at it again.

ShareYourSpare-GreenShe created the “Share Your Spare” 5k race in effort to create awareness and to help with medical costs associated with the surgery, trips to Cincinnati and post-transplant medications. We were also very hopeful to be able to contribute to the National Kidney Foundation of Kentucky. The race was a huge success, with over 300 runners from all over the globe! When I saw a picture of three of our soldiers in Afghanistan wearing a Share Your Spare t-shirt I was so honored. Friends back home in Pennsylvania had organized a 5k that was run at the same time as the race in Kentucky. Bridgit called it a virtual run, where people could participate in their hometowns at the same time her race in Lexington. Bridgit had done it again! There were so many people that stepped up and made this event a true success, one that Bridgit and I will cherish forever. Our volunteers were awesome, we met great people affected by this terrible disease and most importantly brought awareness to the importance of becoming an organ donor.

The day was October 10th 2014; it started like most for me. I struggled to crawl out of bed and make my way to the bathroom to get ready for another day of work. It had become a daily occurrence for me to get to the toilet just in time to vomit and clear all the build-up of the “bad stuff” in my system. Remarkably after “purging,” I felt as good as I probably could and made my way to work. I had a conference call that morning with a few people from our corporate office in Denver, CO. I was considered the expert on the topic during the call and was very active explaining the issues we were experiencing here in Lexington. It was just then at 10:45am when I received a text message from Bridgit that read “You need to call me.” I was unable to step off the call.  She wrote back “Darlene just called. They might have a match for you.”  My heart sank.

I don’t think Bridgit would have wanted to hear those words from anyone else – “We might have something for Ryan.”  Darlene wasn’t just saying that she would be there every step of the way. SHE WAS!

After getting off the conference call, I called Bridgit. She told me to get a good lunch as this might be the last good meal I get for days. A friend at work offered to take me to Five Guys for lunch, however just after one bite of my cheeseburger my phone rang. I knew what it was. He knew what it was. It was the call. Bridgit said, “Dr. Diwan wants us to leave right now.” I hustled back to the office to gather my things and head home to get ready to leave for Cincinnati. I remember walking out of the office that day not knowing when I would be back and having my staff cheer for me as I left. I was so nervous.

The next 11 hours were rough. We waited and waited some more. All the time with Bridgit by my side, I was unsure if the transplant was going to happen. Dr. Diwan had told us that he would need to look over the organs to make sure that they were in perfect condition before being transplanted. It was agonizing; several things were going on through my head – who was the donor, what had happened, how thankful I was to know he had chosen to donate his organs. Bridgit and I were exhausted as we were unable to sleep at such a time. It was 2am when we were moved to anesthesia, and hope was ignited that this may happen. Doctors and surgeons came to my side to offer support and encouragement. Finally at 4:30am a nurse looked at Bridgit and me and said they were ready to go. I wrapped my arms around my wife and surrendered to God. I was at peace. I felt like I was in good hands.

What felt like minutes later, I opened my eyes and caught a glimpse of the most beautiful woman in the world, my wife. Bridgit was there, standing over the bed waiting for me to wake up. I was so tired I could only keep my eyes open long enough to know she was there with me. For the next few days I would stay in the ICU and be closely monitored as the risk of rejection is at its greatest point. There is only one thing I need to know. “Did it work?” For the first time in 17 years, I am not a diabetic.

Several hours later I wake up in the surgical intensive care unit. I had a central line in my neck, an IV in my arm, a catheter in my penis, a tube down my nose, one down my throat, a drainage tube coming from my stomach and my 14 inch incision was held together with 43 metal staples.

Over the next few days I learn that having a catheter is bad, and that getting it out is even worse. I learn that morphine is a great drug. I learn that for the rest of my life I am going to be taking a host of pills to keep these organs working like they should. I am not permitted to eat for 6 days after surgery. But that is ok, because every time they check my sugar or blood pressure it is at normal levels. I am no longer a diabetic. Every day Bridgit comes to visit and spends most of the day with me.  I believe if she could she would have curled up with me in the hospital bed and spent the night, but Bridgit has a job at home.  She is so strong, she is also concerned about our two little ones and keeping their lives as normal as possible. I admire her for that! She is running around like crazy. During my time in the hospital I learn that Rydan has passed his belt test and became a first degree black belt in Taekwondo.download (1)

I am so proud that he overcame such adversity and accomplished such a feat while his dad wasn’t there to cheer him on.

As I lay there at night I couldn’t help but to think about my donor, a young man that chose to donate his organs. He was a young man that died to soon. I thought about his family and friends and what they must be going through and wish so badly that they could take a short glimpse into my family’s life. I want so badly to tell them the amazing gift that their son, brother or friend had given to me. There are no words to express the gratitude I have for them. Sleeping in a hospital bed can be very difficult at times but there were nights where I could have sworn that I saw a young man looking over me at the foot of my bed. Some say it could have been the drugs, but I know someone had been looking down on me.

downloadThe next few months were difficult. Recovery wasn’t fun. I had a stent removed from my penis. Yikes! And I ended up being re-admitted to the hospital due to dehydration for a few days. It was the last place I wanted to go. Every other day Bridgit was driving me back and forth to Cincinnati for blood work and follow up. It was there where I met some more great people of my transplant team, Pre and Post operation. Brian, the lab tech, who celebrated his birthday every day and kept a foil balloon to prove it, was always on FullSizeRender (5)the ball. I never sat and waited to have my blood drawn. He would always say to me “Nothing to do but to do it.” Kathy, my transplant social worker, always made time when she saw me at clinic to come over and talk to my family. She even had Lily join her in her office for some artwork while I was being checked out. She still to this day has that artwork hanging. Jen, a transplant coordinator, gave me a wrath of heck when she saw that I was unable to walk to my appointments for weeks. I just didn’t have the energy. I was getting so discouraged. I remember Jen saying to me that seeing me in a wheelchair was unacceptable and that I needed to start walking. It was all I needed. I’ve always been more motivated when someone got up in my face and challenged me. I remember walking down the hall to my next appointment. Lily and Bridgit were there to hold my hand. It was a struggle but I made it. I felt so accomplished.

It was right around Thanksgiving when I started feeling better. The first few weeks were trying at times. You never realize how hard it is to drink a lot of water until you actually start counting ounces. It wasn’t at all what I imagined it would be.

Generally people say that after receiving a new kidney the recipient feels immediately better. That would have been great, but the fact that I not only got a kidney but a pancreas created a bit more healing and spilled over in to more time.

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Finally after over a month post-surgery, I got my appetite back right in time for Bridgit’s delicious Thanksgiving dinner.  We truly had something special to be thankful for.  It was by far the most thankful year as I was able to celebrate new life.  It was great be with my family and see a light at the end of this tunnel.

Bridgit has continued to do remarkable things to raise awareness for kidney Break It For Ryan Color Logodisease.  Outside of posting interesting facts and stats about kidney disease on her Facebook page she continues to raise awareness through fund raising events like “Break it for Ryan.”  Where Taekwondo students broke boards to raise funds for organizations like the National Kidney Foundation of Kentucky and to help with medical bills related to my continued medical cost.

Through appearances at special events, like the Gift of Life Gala in Louisville, KY Bridgit did such a wonderful job articulating the struggle of transplant patients and families in a touching and heart-felt manner.

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Her unbelievable strength was on display as she commanded the attention of a thousand people.  It was truly inspiring.

Nearly 11 monthly later Bridgit teamed up with The Kidney Health Alliance of Kentucky to plan “Share Your Spare” 5k 2nd Annual race!  It was her way to say thank you to everyone that made the first one such a success and viewed it as an opportunity to “pay it forward.”  At this event running for the first time in years, was yours truly.

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To say I ran the entire 3 miles would be a lie, but knowing where I came from just one year ago was a huge feat.

At the SONY DSCfinish line waiting for me was my Mom, Dad and Rydan. They were so proud of me; it was like I was 12 all over again hitting a homerun in a little league game.  My mom wrapped her arms around me and gave me a gigantic hug. 

A few moments later my little 5 year old runner and Bridgit came through the finish line, we were all together again supporting a cause that hit home with us.  This event raised thousands of dollars that went toward Kentucky kidney patients who were struggling to be added to the transplant waiting list due to the expensive cost related to pre-transplant testing.  Bridgit had done it again! 

Those days are now past and I am feeling much better. I have checked my sugar periodically over the last year and it has remained in a healthy range. It is still remarkable to me that organ donors and surgeons are able to pull such a feat.What that combination of people has done for me and my family is truly astonishing.

IMG_5706I heard a quote once and it went something like this. “The only parts that really matter and take commitment in wedding vows are; worse, SICKNESS, and poorer. Better, richer and healthy are pretty easy to deal with.”

My wife is without doubt the strongest woman I have ever met. She has stood firmly beside me every step of the way through this journey. When we took our vows on July 18, 2009 we meant every word we said: “I, Ryan, take you, Bridgit, to be my wife…in sickness and in health…” And in turn: “I, Bridgit, take you, Ryan, to be my husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”

It was that same day that my best man Tori said to me, “Ryan, I will always be your best man, but today you have a new best friend.”

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So very very glad you have come through this Ryan! And I’m also very grateful you have such a wonderful family standing behind you. God has truly blessed you and I know the young man who gave you life is there with you, watching over you and is proud to have helped someone as deserving as you. Take care,,,Tom and I wish all the best for you and your family….. May God bless all of you……….Tom and Brenda Mace

Comment by Brenda Mace




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