One day when Leah Howell was in seventh grade, she didn’t feel well on the way to school. “It felt like I had the flu,” she said. By the time she got to school she was very sick, with a high fever and chills. That was the beginning of her journey with kidney disease. Leah had chronic pyelonephritis, which is a recurring kidney infection, usually caused by birth defects in the kidney. These repeated infections can cause scarring of the kidneys and result in kidney failure.
Her condition stayed stable while she was in college, but after graduation her kidneys began to fail. Leah started peritoneal dialysis and began waiting for a kidney donor from the transplant list, while teaching first at a university and then for Detroit Public Schools. “I had 13 friends and family who tried to donate, but none of them matched,” she said. “I consider myself really fortunate because I had a really strong support network.”
In May 2003 Leah received a transplant, but it failed, and she had to go on hemodialysis. At this time she also had peritonitis and was not able to work. “That was the most difficult time,” Leah said. “I always worked multiple jobs, and it was very much a part of who I [was], so this was very tough.” In June 2004 Leah received a successful second transplant, which is functioning well to this day. She nicknamed her donor kidney “Joseph.” “He will be 11 this year,” she said. “We celebrate every year!”
Leah had serious health problems after the transplant, including avascular necrosis, a condition where bone tissue dies. In 2006 Leah had to have both hips repaired, but continued on and returned to graduate school. She found a job in the Office of the Ombudsman at a university. As an ombudsman, she worked with students to help them resolve conflicts or concerns they may have. “Working for students and advocating for them made me realize what all those experiences were for, and allowed me to give back,” Leah said.
Leah’s mother and younger sister “have been rocks through everything,” she said. She also credits her aunts and uncles and a handful of friends who have been there for her since early high school for their support. Some people who were close to her were not able to deal with her illness and need for a transplant. “I lost some people that were important in my life because they couldn’t or didn’t want to process what was going on,” she said. “I think whenever you’re dealing with chronic illness that happens. You don’t want to fault people. While I was sad, I understood.”
Leah is working full time and will complete her Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati in December of this year. “I always wanted to do that,” she said. “I’m very proud!” Having accomplished that goal, Leah is now training to walk a 5K and compete in next year’s Transplant Games. “My kidney function now is perfect, and I’m able to be active and do what I want,” she said.
Leah volunteers for LifeCenter Ohio as an advocate for organ donation. She shares her story on Twitter as @livelaughloveLH. “I live my life every single day in a way that honors my donor,” she said. “I’m here because he let me [be here.] I have a gift, and I’m not going to waste a single second.” She advises others affected by kidney disease to be mindful of their mental and emotional wellbeing. “If your mind and your spirit aren’t in a good place, your body will follow,” Leah said. “It’s not about what you can’t [do,] it’s about what you can do. We’re stronger than we ever give ourselves credit for.”
#TogetherWeCan is a continuing series of stories from kidney patients and care partners, sharing their experiences and insights.