Student succeeds even as kidneys fail
Nick LaHusen knows his kidney failure made him a better person.
"People have this notion — they don't really give a damn about anything, unless it affects them. I was totally like that," he explains. "(My illness) helped me understand there's a lot of diseases out there that affect people in many ways."
"The kidney disease doesn't define who I am, but I wouldn't say I'm the same," he continues.
The 23-year-old sits in his two-bedroom unit at Burnside Station Apartments, less than a block from the 181st Avenue MAX light-rail stop in the heart of Rockwood.
LaHusen is on break for now, but the Portland State University student is already gearing up for another semester of poetry and business administration. He wants to start his own company someday, and maybe write a novel or two about dragons.
The Centennial grad lives a full life, which isn't necessarily the norm for those undergoing dialysis daily.
The kidneys are the body's filters. They sieve the blood for toxins and regular chemicals that become harmful in large quantities, like potassium, phosphorus, salt and sugar. The kidneys ensure those chemicals are removed from the body as liquid or solid waste.
"Our kidneys work until they don't, and that's when you feel it," LaHusen notes.
The problem is the kidneys run around the clock, meaning that traditional dialysis patients must spend hours hooked up to what is essentially an artificial kidney in a sterile medical facility.
LaHusen needs about 12 hours of dialysis every day, but a machine produced by Fresenius Kidney Care in Clackamas lets him cycle his blood at home, usually while he's sleeping.
Plastic tubes connect three 5,000 milliliter bags of dialysate to the cycling machine, while LaHusen plugs in via a tube attached to the catheter in his abdomen.
"It's where you plug in the flash drive. That's the catheter," he jokes.
The treatment actually happens inside LaHusen's belly, in an empty cavity with purifying membranes known as the peritoneum. A final tube runs to the upstairs sink to drain out the waste.
LaHusen admits to insomnia — he often gets about four to six hours of sleep a night. The real challenge has been adapting his diet. Potatoes, tomatoes, apples, bananas, ice cream, cheese and chocolate don't seem that harmful, but that's because your kidneys are still functional.
"When I get my kidney, the first thing I'm going to do is (go to) the Fondue Pot in downtown Portland and mow down a bunch of cheese," LaHusen says.
He calls himself an ambivert — a balance of introspection and extroversion — and talks about the countless hours he's spent adventuring in video games like Skyrim and The Legend of Dragoon.
His childhood wasn't easy. At age 12, social workers removed him from the care of his father. Looking back, he thinks he was raising himself and his twin younger brothers.
He lived with his uncle in Ridgefield, Wash., for a year, but says he was acting out and eventually ran away. He started staying with his mom when she was out of jail and living in clean and sober housing.
Life seemed to have straightened out by January 2016. Then he started experiencing piercing migraines and blurry vision.
It got so bad he couldn't read the menu while trying to order hot wings with his dad at Fire on the Mountain in Portland. LaHusen didn't know it yet, but his lungs were filling up with water. With good timing, he had just signed up for health insurance through the federal Affordable Care Act.
"I was drowning, gasping for air, holding onto things, and (having) anxiety attacks. It was awful," he recalls. "My blood pressure was 217 over 178, which is incredibly high. That's like heart attack status."
Almost immediately, he met Dr. Tricia Jesperson, a nephrologist with Fresenius that LaHusen highly recommends.
So for now, he's waiting for a kidney transplant. He's got at least another year and half to go, according to the OHSU waitlist.
"I've got other stuff going on. If I wasn't going to school, and was just sitting around collecting (Social Security) checks, that would be hard," he says. "Waiting is the easy part."
CORRECTION: Nick LaHusen uses three 5,000 milliliter bags of dialysate. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information.
Nick LaHusen undergoes about 12 hours of dialysis a night. A previous version of this story contained incorrect information.
The Outlook regrets the errors.