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Yuman prepares for kidney transplant
On just about any day, Mike Shelton can be found working out at the YMCA. He takes his time on the treadmill and elliptical trainer, lifting weights and hitting the circuit machines.
It's difficult to imagine that the Yuma man, who recently lost his wife to cancer, is now fighting for his own life. His remaining kidney, ravaged by chronic kidney disease, is functioning at 7 percent.
But Shelton, 56, who is known for his volunteerism and service to several public agencies, is getting a second chance at life. He will undergo a kidney transplant on Tuesday, thanks to Tempe friend Cindy Carrillo, who will donate one of her kidneys.
“They're not taking out a kidney, I'm getting a third one,” Shelton explained.
He has been preparing for the two-hour procedure at Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale for more than a year, adjusting his diet, exercise routine and attitude.
“You have to be willing to do what you need to do to succeed, in my case, to survive.”
Doctors realized Shelton's kidney was failing about a year and a half ago when its function dropped to below 20 percent due to high blood pressure, diabetes and too much weight. His left kidney had atrophied and died when Shelton was 4 years old, when doctors operated on the organ to remove a stone.
With one failing kidney, Shelton's only hope rested on a transplant. To qualify, Shelton had to lose weight. He started at 310 and hit his goal of 250 in January. He accomplished this with his late wife Sharon's help.
“I had to make significant changes in my life and be extremely consistent with my exercise.”
That meant adjusting his diet. “As someone who loves meat and hates vegetables, I had to change my mind. I ate a lot of fast food. I loved drinking milk. That had to stop.”
He also had to stay away from foods normally considered healthy, such as brown rice, whole wheat breads and nuts, because of the high phosphorous content. He also gave up favorites such as chocolate, peanut butter and cheese and eliminated soda entirely, in particular Dr Pepper, “my main drink.”
In addition, he had to increase his vegetable intake. He “dusted off” his juicer and learned to enjoy vegetable juices and fruit smoothies made with soy milk.
Aside from working out at the YMCA, he walks seven or eight miles every day.
“My strategy last year was not only to cut off the bad stuff but to improve the ability of my body to compensate for my failing kidney.”
Determined to stay off dialysis, he looked for other ways to support his body, including alternative therapies such as weekly acupuncture and massage therapy.
“I'm fighting like hell, all the way through.”
His lifestyle changes have controlled his diabetes and reversed the sleep apnea.
Throughout this time, however, Sharon's non-Hodgkin lymphoma went into “rapid decline” after living with the disease 9½ years. They met online and married 10 years ago in a Star Trek ceremony. Their wedding photos show the bride and the groom with members of the Federation of Planets behind them.
As her cancer worsened, she was admitted in September to Yuma Regional Medical Center and then Tucson Medical Center. “While I was helping her, she was worried about me,” he recalled.
At her insistence, Shelton kept up his fitness routine, working out at the hospital fitness center and watching what he ate while she underwent treatment.
“If it wasn't for what Sharon did for me, I wouldn't be here now.”
Sharon died in Tucson in November at the age of 53. Although heartbroken, his love for her kept him going. “She would have wanted that. If the situation were reversed, I would have wanted her to do the same. She was fighting for me the last days of her life.”
Shelton also had to find an organ donor match. With no siblings and very few blood relatives, doctors encouraged him to ask friends. He hesitated, thinking, “How do you ask for a kidney?”
“Just bring it up,” they advised him. He did and very quickly friends volunteered to be tested. Carrillo, whom Shelton met when they were both students at Arizona State University, was a perfect match.
“I am extremely blessed she is willing to do this,” Shelton said.
By this time, Shelton's kidney function was down to 10 percent. Normally someone with such low function would be swollen and suffering from nausea, vomiting and weakness, especially if they're not on dialysis.
“Last time I saw the doctor, he was spooked because I am doing so well. Usually we look like death warmed over. I have zero vomiting, zero nausea. I had a little bit of swelling but it's gone down. I have some weakness which I beat back, I don't give in.”
Someone in his situation qualifies for disability, but “I didn't want to do that. I wanted to earn my way.”
Shelton, born and raised in Phoenix, came to Yuma in 1990 to work as assistant to the city administrator. He later taught in the Crane School District and PPEP program in San Luis and Somerton.
Most recently he worked as regional director of Linkages Arizona, a nonprofit organization that helps disabled people find jobs. He resigned in December to focus on his health but still volunteers at The Living Center, helping recovering addicts and others with resume writing and job applications.
He's also the area governor for Toastmasters International and enjoys giving speeches on history and civil rights and dramatic readings based on comic superheroes. His favorites are Superman, Batman and Silver Surfer.
Just as these superheroes are fearless, Shelton has “no fear” in spite of a 10-15 percent mortality rate. “I feel great. I have no fear whatsoever because I know what the alternative is: death.”
He also takes comfort in knowing that people are praying for him “throughout the country, not just here. I have a tremendous amount of support.” And he says, he has complete confidence in the Mayo Clinic staff.
He intends to “get out of bed within two hours after the anesthesia wears off.” He will spend two days in the hospital, followed by six weeks of convalescence at a hotel three miles from the hospital. During this time, two cousins and a local Yuma retiree, a member of his church, will take care of him in two-week shifts.
He will take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of his life. “I have no problem with that. It's just another pill.”
Shelton already knows what he will do after he recuperates. He will visit a cousin in Florida “and ride a propeller boat in the Everglades and see the alligators.”
Mara Knaub can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6856.