Barry Gonzalez is a happily married family man with three adoring young children, a job he loves and a new hobby of running along the green, lush paths of his Orlando, Florida neighborhood. But Gonzalez considers himself lucky to be alive, because he lost function of his kidneys at just 27 years old.
The unexpected diagnosis required Gonzalez – who at the time was heavily overweight – to undergo a rigorous dialysis schedule, which left him depressed and unmotivated. But now, 10 years later with a dedication to a healthier lifestyle, a portable home dialysis machine and the endless support of his devoted family, the Guatemala native now hopes to spread awareness about the disease which the eighth leading cause of death in the United States.
“I was living the dream, making good money at a wonderful job with a growing company, happy that life was good,” recalls Gonzalez, who emigrated from Guatemala City as a young child and grew up in Los Angeles. “I had no idea of the consequences that my eating and drinking had – and I had no idea that even though my body might give up, my spirit would keep me going.”
Gonzalez had shown up for his 10 hour work day as the manager for a California-based furniture retail store when he sat down at his computer one day and realized one side of the screen was blurry. Shifting his view, he realized it wasn’t just the computer – he couldn’t see half of his desk; the room. He was struck with temporarily blindness and mere hours later, lying in a sterile hospital bed, received the news that he had end stage renal disease – otherwise known as kidney failure.
“All I can remember from that moment is that while my wife was crying outside my room, the doctor told me I had two years to live,” says Gonzalez, whose sky-high blood pressure had caused the blood vessels in his kidneys and eyes to burst, causing blindness. “If I had paid attention, gone to the doctor and realized that my growing weight was the issue, I might have realized something bigger was going on the entire time leading up to that scary scene.”
Dialysis – a treatment that virtually acts as an artificial kidney to filter blood – is an intense experience which required Gonzalez to travel to a treatment center three times a week for hours of therapy at a time. Gonzalez would wake up at 3:30 in the morning, arrive to the center by 4am and undergo treatment until 8:30 before heading to work where he would often remain until 10 at night. The dialysis schedule left Gonzalez physically drained, emotionally exhausted and unmotivated.
“I kept on drinking and partying. Sometimes I wouldn’t even show up to the center and they would have to call my wife asking where I was,” said Gonzalez. “As a Latino man, I thought all I had to do was make money and pay the bills – and when it was hard to keep up with work due to the treatment, I felt nothing mattered.”
In 2008, Gonzalez –no longer working full-time – decided to move his family from Los Angeles to the more affordable Orlando, Florida. Gonzalez resumed treatment at an Orlando dialysis center and with it, resumed his destructive old habits until he met a nurse who mentioned to him a new method of treatment: the home dialysis machine. He received training on an NxStage dialysis machine and with the freedom to independently administer daily treatment at home for just a few hours at a time, finally gained the motivation to completely change his lifestyle.
That was nearly four years and today, Gonzalez has given up drinking and has lost more than one hundred pounds thanks to a rigorous workout schedule and new, healthier eating habits. He now weighs a slim 170 pounds.
“It wasn’t until I felt I could take control of my dialysis that I felt I could be there for my family again,” emphasizes Gonzalez, who now acts as the primary child care giver while his wife works in retail. “I realize now that what I always had – my wife and kids – were the only reason I ever needed to create a new start.”
Gonzalez, who now runs at least five miles daily and makes sure green salad is the primary component on his dinner plate – has even improved his health to the point where he’s able to work part-time. He just celebrated one year of employment at Disney World, a job he loves because he’s now able to take his three children to the theme park on a regular basis. And his doting wife, Enair, has gained inspiration from her husband’s experience too, having just graduated from a local community with a degree in phlebotomy. Her dream she says is to now become a dialysis technician and she’s currently studying faithfully for the state’s certification exam.
“We went from an unhealthy life to a rough time and finally, we’re in a wonderful place,” says the 35-year-old, who has faithfully helped her husband administer his treatment. “I’m more confident than ever that I can help others through what I learned from his experience.”
Gonzalez, who eventually hopes to receive a kidney transplant as a final remedy to his disease, says he intends to keep his healthy lifestyle.
“I want my kids and wife to have wonderful lives,” explains Gonzalez.
“Being healthy and monitoring my treatment is something small I can do to make sure I’m able to enjoy time with my family – and that’s something that I had to learn.”
Five Tips To Support Kidney Health
Leading a healthy lifestyle can go a long way towards preventing kidney disease. Jorge Barrero, MD, a specialist in nephrology and internal medicine, gives us five easy tips on how to best reduce your risk of the disease.
Go to the doctor regularly: Visiting your primary care physician regularly can go a long way in warding off kidney disease. With urine analysis, weight screenings and a basic routine blood pressure test, a doctor can best monitor your health and provide preventive care before serious issues occur, says Dr. Barrero, who operates a private practice in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Monitor your blood pressure: Only 1/3 of people with high blood pressure control it properly, which means that most people are not aware of the damage they can incur by ignoring their condition, says Dr. Barrero. But monitoring your blood pressure can be one of the most important steps towards reducing your risk of kidney failure. “High blood pressure quietly damages the wall of blood vessels and provokes general vascular damage,” explains Dr. Barrero. “When those vessels become damaged, you eventually develop kidney failure.”
Maintain a healthy lifestyle: One of the best ways to reduce your risk of kidney and other diseases is to eat a healthy diet, consume moderate portions and exercise regularly. Need another reason to get walking or head to the gym? A recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that muscle exercise generates a specific substance that protects vessels and can reduce risk of kidney disease, notes Dr. Barrero, adding scientific justification for adding exercise to your daily routine.
Ditch bad habits: A night out with friends doesn’t have to involve excess drinking or a social smoke, and actually can increase your risk of getting kidney disease. Excess alcohol consumption can cause liver damage, explains Dr. Barrero, and can also cause high blood pressure. Smoking also causes vascular disease and spasm of vessels – the same mechanism that affects kidneys with hypertension, says Dr. Barrero, so steering clear of both can go a long way in reducing your risk of kidney disease.
Make it a family affair: According to the CDC, Hispanic Americans have 1.5 times the rate of kidney failure compared to non-Hispanic whites, making awareness about kidney disease and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle a priority for the entire family, says Dr. Barrero. By taking a post-dinner stroll around the block and stocking the fridge with health foods, being healthy – together – can make a huge impact even for children, who can learn habits that can keep them healthy for a lifetime.