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The Baltimore Sun

Take Five: Living with a quiet courage

Kirby Alary has for 28 years worked in a local laboratory that draws blood for doctors' use in registering and analyzing the health condition of their patients. I spent a fascinating and emotional hour with him a few weeks ago. (My wife and I are patients of this laboratory.)

Alary undergoes dialysis treatment three times every week. Each session lasts for three and one-half hours. His kidneys struggle to stay operative. This is a story of a man who fully understands where he is in life, and what his mission is. He is not dramatic about his health, stating in clear terms where he sees himself as he takes care of the many hundreds of patients who come into his lab.

He had a kidney transplant in 1998. His hopes were high that this would solve the problem of his poor-performing kidneys. His mother was warned early on that having children would damage her already malfunctioning kidneys. She had three children. Alary was the last. By the time he was 3, his mother had died.

After 18 months, Alary's transplanted kidney failed. No matter that he took handfuls of pills to ward off his body's rejection of the new kidney. “All kidneys fail in the range of 7-12 years,” he told me. “Your body fights like mad against transplanted organs. I had to take gobs of medications whose job it was to tell my body, ‘Hey, don't keep fighting my new kidney. I hate going back on dialysis.'”

His left leg swelled, he gained 30 pounds, his bones became chalky — the kidney was removed and he was back on the hookup, three days every week. One of his enemies, a 14-gauge needle, was waiting for him. This ugly devil, the size of a nail, is inserted into his left arm. It's his personal monster.

During the process, all of his blood is removed, circulated through another machine to be cleaned, and then sent back to him ready to keep him healthy for another 48 hours.

Alary's life is markedly different from yours and mine. His left arm, always covered with a long-sleeved shirt, looks like a four-hump camel. Or perhaps a miniature mountain range. He never complains, and he's still here. Yes, thank goodness for that.

My friend knows the meaning of life. He lost his mother and a brother to kidney failure. The technology available now to him was not there for members of his family many years ago. He's one of 350,000 Americans who must go for dialysis help every few days for the rest of their lives.

A single man, Alary adopts his patients. I'm convinced he has the largest family in La Cañada. He's dedicated to giving the best customer service possible. He treats his staff the same way. He's got walls and drawers stacked with thank-you cards, notes, doo-dads and more from his patient-friends. He reads their worries and comforts them as best he can.

“I know that God has given me this chance to live and help my patients and other people. I swore I wouldn't go back to the dialysis machine. But when I looked into the alternative abyss of no return as my health collapsed, I told myself to shape up. I've got a lot more to do in this life and if it takes the 14 gauge needle to keep me around, so be it.

“I'm almost 53 years old. I've been back on the machine for nine years. But whatever time I have left, I'm going to put up with the monster and take care of my many adopted families.”

This is quiet courage and should inspire us all.

GENE PEPPER is a published author and writer. Contact him by email at gpep@aol.com or phone (818) 790-1990.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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