In the last years of my mother's life, I served as her caregiver. Although she had moments of independence, overall her body and health were so fragile she needed lots of assistance and support. She was susceptible to falls and breaks because of balance issues and osteoporosis and followed a continual pattern of falling, breaking a vertebra, having surgery, spending time in rehab, and returning home. My father died years before this phase of her life, and as an only child, I was responsible for everything concerning her. A Surprising Diagnosis During these years, I balanced my mother's needs with my responsibilities to my own family. This balancing act was physically and emotionally exhausting and many times I nearly fell off the caregiving high wire. I was so focused on taking care of my mother that I neglected my own health, skipping regular appointments with my family physician and delaying routine procedures and lab work. At some point, I went for an overdue appointment with my gynecologist. I confessed my tardiness in regular checkups and lab work and he drew blood for labs. The next day, he called. I was surprised he called instead of the nurse. "There is something on your labs that concerns me," he said. "I guess my cholesterol is high." "No, it's your kidney function. You are in the early stages of renal failure." I held the phone away from my ear and stared at it like it was a foreign object before resuming the conversation. "Are you sure you're looking at my lab results?" "I'm sure, and regardless of your caregiving duties, this is not something you can ignore. I'm making an appointment for you with a nephrologist and you need to keep it." I hung up the phone and sat there, overwhelmed. How could I be in the early stages of renal failure and what did that mean? I had no symptoms. No pain, no problems urinating, nothing that signaled my kidneys were failing. At what stage did failing kidneys require dialysis? Was I nearing that stage? I noted the nephrology appointment on my calendar and tried to focus on preparations for my mother's upcoming 90th birthday party. She was nearing the end of a rehab stay and then would be coming home again. How could I take care of her and deal with my own health? It was too much to think about. Learning What Kidney Disease Meant Several weeks later, I sat in the office of a nephrologist named Dr. C. Bruce Murdock. Nurses bustled in and out of my exam room, clearly alarmed at my blood pressure reading. They whispered in the hall. Thankfully, Dr. Murdock's response was not a stern reprimand for ignoring my health, but one of compassion and concern. He took the time to listen to all that was going on in my life before looking me in the eyes and telling me I must focus on my own health without delay. He confirmed that kidney failure has no symptoms and told me that many times he sees patients in the ER who had no idea they had a kidney problem until their kidneys failed. He asked about my use of NSAID pain relievers, which I had been popping frequently to ease the aches and stress of caregiving, and told me I could never take them again because they played a part in my declining kidney function. (At the time, there were no warnings to this effect on NSAID packaging, nor was it openly talked about.) He explained the correlation between high blood pressure and kidney failure and told me my blood pressure was so high I should go immediately to the pharmacy, have the prescription he handed me filled, and take the medicine within the hour. Until that day, I didn't know I had high blood pressure. He also scheduled an ultrasound of my kidneys to check for cancer or other problems. I'm not sure if a kidney ultrasound is normally painful or if I just had an overzealous tech, but my ultrasound hurt so much tears streamed down my face. Perhaps the tears came from fear and the fact that I could no longer pretend I didn't have a serious health condition. I hadn't told anyone what was happening with me except my husband, and for whatever reason, he brushed off my situation as no big deal. Emotionally, it was difficult not to have his concern and support. My son was in college and my daughter in nursing school and I decided not to tell them until I had more information. I said nothing to friends or other family members, afraid the word would get back to my mother, a champion worrier. In hindsight, I made a mistake by not gaining the support of friends and family. When I next saw Dr. Murdock, he assured me I was not dealing with cancer and talked to me about controlling my blood pressure, reducing stress, remaining hydrated, and losing weight. I laughed inwardly at the fantasy of reducing stress. My mother's condition had deteriorated and she was now also experiencing dementia and was in the locked "memory" unit of a care facility. Her funds were exhausted, her healthcare insurance didn't cover the cost, and we were scrambling to pay her bills each month. Reduce stress? That wasn't going to happen. Getting Healthy and Looking Forward My mother died later that summer. To be honest, relief mingled with grief. It took nearly three years to settle her estate and clean out her house, where she had lived for over 60 years. During that time, I grieved, but I also worked on my health, paying more attention to diet and exercise, monitoring blood pressure, learning to make water my beverage of choice, and keeping regular appointments with Dr. Murdock. My goals were to have better lab results with each visit and lose weight. Gradually, I was able to stretch appointments from every three months to every six months. As I neared five years of life with kidney disease, my appointments were once a year with Dr. Murdock and every six months with my family physician. Last year, I graduated from Dr. Murdock's care with the understanding I will be closely monitored by my family physician. Not seeing a kidney specialist annually doesn't mean I'm not paying attention to my health. It is my goal to maintain my current level of kidney function, or improve it, and never reach the point of needing dialysis. I have a granddaughter now, and a grandson soon to be born. I want to be healthy and active so I can spend plenty of time with them. Often we ignore or delay health concerns, sacrificing our own health for the sake of others or because we don't want to be told something we don't want to hear. That is a mistake. Early detection of any health condition is key to treatment, recovery, and quality of life. I use my experience to encourage others to make regular checkups and screenings a priority no matter what other area of life is falling apart. Health is a precious gift, one not to be taken lightly.