George McClure, three times a kidney transplant recipient, sits for a portrait at home on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Penn Hills. Kidney disease left McClure legally blind, but the generosity of others opened his eyes to a new calling as an advocate with the National Kidney Foundation. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Kidney disease left me legally blind, but the generosity of others opened my eyes to a new calling.
“You have kidney disease,” my doctor told me in a flat, emotionless voice that contrasted with the turmoil I was feeling.
I hadn’t been to a doctor’s office in nine years. I was there to get checked out after my family noticed — literally saw — my heart thumping in my chest while we watched a football game.
“Wait a minute, can I die from this?” I asked the doctor. Without giving me a straight answer, he referred me to a nephrologist — a specialist who treats diseases and conditions that affect the kidneys.
It was 2002 and I was trying hard to build the perfect life. I had a great career as an administrative staffer for the School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh. I lifted weights, walked half-marathons and played flag football, basketball and softball in local leagues. I was 34 years old and the father of a toddler son, with a second child on the way.
After all that effort, I found myself alone in that doctor’s office, wondering if my children would grow up without a father.
At the time, I didn’t know that kidneys — organs about the size of your fist — are essential for keeping our bodies healthy. They filter our blood by removing waste and excess fluids. They also regulate our blood pressure and keep our electrolyte levels in check.
But my kidneys weren’t working properly: I had glomerulonephritis, which is inflammation or scarring of the kidney filters. My nephrologist told me my kidneys would gradually lose function over time. I could stave off kidney failure by starting dialysis — a treatment that uses a machine to clean your blood because your kidneys can’t. Eventually, I would need a kidney transplant.
But kidney disease isn’t a death sentence, he said. As long as I kept up with my treatments, I could live with this.
Reassured by what my doctor told me, I tried to move on with my life by raising my kids, building my career at Pitt and staying active through sports and exercise.
But my symptoms were overwhelming. I couldn’t keep up with my flag football teammates during games. I chased after 30-yard passes, but got winded easily. I stopped to catch my breath in between plays. Sometimes I was too exhausted to play defense and found a substitute to take my place. I went home after games and slept for more than half the day. It didn’t matter how much rest I got; I was always tired.
A new lease on life, but it didn’t last
I was about to start dialysis when my sister, Nickey Collins, said she’d give me her kidney. I refused her offer at first, but she insisted and got tested to find out if she was a match. She was a compatible donor, which is likely because we’re related: Sibling donors have a 25% chance of being an exact match to their recipient.
I received my sister’s kidney in 2007, which boosted my quality of life for seven years. I stayed off dialysis, which meant I had the freedom to travel and lead an active life. I married Christine, and together we built a family that includes six children. I even walked two half-marathons in the same week, though I felt terrible afterward and wondered if I had pushed myself too hard.
By 2014, those familiar feelings of weakness and exhaustion had returned. Doctors confirmed what I could feel: My sister’s kidney — which was small and had to work harder in my body — was failing. I needed a new transplant right away.