Dawn Lawlor has experienced kidney disease from nearly every angle: as a care partner for her father, and personally as a kidney patient, a transplant recipient, and now as a dialysis nurse. When asked how kidney disease has affected her life, Dawn said, “When something’s all you’ve ever known, it just seems like your [normal] life.”
Dawn’s family has a history of polycystic kidney disease (PKD). PKD is an inherited disease. A person with PKD has a 50/50 chance of passing it on to every child they have. Dawn’s father and two of his brothers had PKD. Her father began hemodialysis in 1968 at Danbury Hospital. In the early years of dialysis, treatment took place at hospitals. There were few dialysis machines available, and each dialysis treatment took several hours. After starting dialysis, her dad dedicated his life to educating people about kidney disease and raising money so hospitals could buy additional dialysis machines.
Dawn found out that she had PKD when she was 14. “I didn’t think too much about it because my dad never acted like he was sick,” she said. “I was probably just too young to understand.”
“I grew up with dialysis in the family,” Dawn said. “My mother worked and supported the family. I would go to the hospital with my dad and be with him on the way home to keep him awake as he drove, because he was so tired after treatment.” Dawn was in high school when her father died in 1980. “I wished he had lived longer, but I was lucky I got to know him at all,” she said. “[For him,] everything was about people who were worse off than him, who couldn’t be on dialysis.”
After she graduated from high school, Dawn thought about going to nursing school, but she decided she wasn’t ready to be in a medical environment so soon after her father’s passing. She went to school for restaurant management instead, and worked for several years in the food service industry. After Dawn got married and had a son, her dream of going to nursing school returned. With her husband’s encouragement, Dawn went to school and studied during the day, and then worked as a waitress at night. She graduated in 1999 and was determined to work as a dialysis nurse.
Over the years, her kidney function had worsened. By late 1999, Dawn was preparing for dialysis and began the process to receive a kidney transplant. Her first kidney transplant took place in 2000, and was donated by a family friend. After the transplant Dawn felt great, and got a job in a dialysis facility. She worked as a dialysis nurse for five (5) years and also helped patients to begin the transplant process.
Her experience with kidney transplant education at the dialysis facility led her to pursue a job with an organ procurement organization (OPO) as a transplant coordinator. Dawn said, “it was a very intense job, very emotional,” but she was passionate about educating families about organ donation. Six years after Dawn’s first kidney transplant, her kidney function began to worsen again. She started hemodialysis at the same facility where she used to work. Dawn’s sister wanted to donate a kidney to her and began the testing process. Her sister did not have PKD and ended up being a perfect match! In 2007, Dawn received her second kidney transplant from her sister.
Since her second kidney transplant Dawn says she has done “really, really well.” She has since returned to work as a dialysis nurse and is training people to perform hemodialysis at home.
“I don’t think of myself as sick,” Dawn said. “I have a chronic disease. I have met so many people who have challenges so much harder than mine. Being with my dad, I realized you have to live every day. One of the biggest impressions he left on me was that it wasn’t about him. Everything [for him] was about [helping other] people.”
Dawn is inspired by talking with others who have had similar experiences. “I feel like I have a real connection with my patients because I know how they feel. They are helping me!”
#TogetherWeCan is a continuing series of stories from kidney patients and care partners, sharing their experiences and insights.