It’s safe to say that the past year has been difficult for everyone, but as a patient with chronic kidney disease, it was particularly challenging. I recently met two significant milestones—my fifth year on dialysis and becoming fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
As a dialysis patient, I am constantly thinking about my health. When I was in college, I was diagnosed with acute kidney failure. One month before graduation, I went to the emergency room because I was experiencing extreme fatigue and nausea. That’s when doctors told me that without dialysis, I would die within 2 or 3 days.
Becoming a dialysis patient changes your life. As a 23-year-old, my world was completely uprooted. But I decided then that I didn’t need to stop living my life just because I was on dialysis. I made it my personal mantra to make dialysis work around my life, rather than making my life work around dialysis. I enjoyed interacting with clinic staff and other dialysis patients and began doing schoolwork during my treatments. I also began advocating for others with kidney disease in my home state of Louisiana, becoming an Ambassador for the American Kidney Fund (AKF), the country’s leading organization that fights on all fronts for kidney disease patients.
Cut to the pandemic. I was earning my second master’s degree in public health and epidemiology, and before the world officially shut down, I made a personal decision to protect my health and stop coming to campus. By this point, I was doing home-dialysis treatments, which meant I didn’t need to venture out to a dialysis clinic three times a week. And while home-dialysis helped keep me safe from contracting COVID-19, it also led to a much lonelier routine. I was no longer able to travel, regularly socialize with other kidney advocates or my sorority sisters, which was a much different lifestyle than I was used to.
In October 2020, I began a new job as a program coordinator in a hospital pharmacy, where I am responsible for data analysis and compliance for a federal program. When the hospital started offering vaccines to its employees, I called my dialysis clinic right away for their advice. They recommended I get vaccinated as soon as possible.
More than half a million Americans have kidney failure, relying on dialysis to survive. Patients on dialysis have been at particular risk of COVID-19 infection, with a significant increase in hospitalizations and death in 2020 due to the pandemic. Communities of color have been hit the hardest—experiencing higher rates of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization and death. These communities are also disproportionately impacted by kidney failure: Black people make up just 13% of the U.S. population but account for 35% of Americans with kidney failure. They are nearly four times more likely than white people to develop kidney failure.
That’s part of the reason I am so committed to my volunteer role as an AKF Ambassador. AKF has been advocating for the kidney community throughout the pandemic, including a recent successful push to encourage the Biden-Harris Administration to directly provide dialysis clinics with vaccines, because clinics have experience vaccinating their patients for other diseases. AKF met with Congressional leaders and Biden-Harris Administration officials, and on March 25, the White House announced that COVID-19 vaccines would be distributed to dialysis clinics. This was a huge win—increasing access to lifesaving vaccines for historically underserved communities that need it most.
I recognize that I was fortunate to be offered a COVID-19 vaccine through my job, in the early stages of the vaccine dissemination. I also recognize that as someone who works in public health and as a woman of color, I have an opportunity to lead by example. Hopefully, seeing me get vaccinated for COVID-19, and showing that it is safe, will be a positive influence for others in the kidney community, and those in the Black community who are at greater risk of complications from kidney disease, who may be hesitant about getting it.
I understand the hesitation that some, particularly those in the Black community, may have about the COVID-19 vaccines. But as someone who has studied epidemiology, clinical toxicology and public health extensively, I know that the benefits of the vaccine outweigh any potential risks. I have a deep understanding of how vaccines work and feel confident in the science behind them.
I got my second dose of the vaccine in January, and the only side effect was a sore arm. I hope my story as a dialysis patient getting vaccinated for COVID-19 will encourage others who may be nervous or on the fence to go ahead and get it. Right now, getting the vaccine is the best thing we can do to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
—Leigh-Ann Williams, American Kidney Fund Ambassador