A chance to tour with Pitbull led rapper David Rush to explore his options
Kidney disease and African Americans are not friends. We are at an increased risk of developing kidney disease, largely due to high rates of high blood pressure and diabetes. We’re also more likely to have chronic kidney disease at a younger age than people of other races. And while we’re getting the ugly statistics out there, here are two more: We are three times more likely to suffer kidney failure, and we make up more than 35 percent of folks on dialysis because of it.
While we’re dropping knowledge about kidney disease, here’s something else to know: It often has no symptoms, so it can go undetected until it’s in an advanced stage.
Yet, in spite of these startling facts, less than 3 percent of us even recognize kidney disease as a top health concern.
Count rapper David Rush (formerly known as Young Bo$$) among the clueless. “I didn’t know anything about kidney disease,” he says. “I just knew they were in my back and shaped like kidney beans.”
His crash course in all things kidney started when he was in tenth grade and discovered during a physical that he had protein in his urine. Doctors found, through a biopsy and further testing, that Rush had some scarring in his kidneys. He made some adjustments to his diet and promptly went on with his life.
“When you’re 17 or 18 years old, you’re not thinking about taking your blood pressure or doctor follow ups,” he says.
But a few years later, after Rush had completed college, doctors found more scarring. He learned he was in the fourth stage of focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS). Though there are more than 20 types of glomerular diseases, glomerulosclerosis affects more men than women and occurs more often in African Americans.
Treatment can slow the progression of the disease, but the scarred kidney tissue can’t be repaired, and some patients with glomerulosclerosis gradually get worse until they reach kidney failure. These patients—and Rush was one of them—will need dialysis or a kidney transplant to stay alive.
[Related: Kidney Transplant Racial Gap Shrinks]
“I was put on dialysis at 25 years old,” Rush says. “Everything just kind of went haywire for me. I had to move back in with my mom for a bit. I lost my car. I wasn’t able to work. I was on a machine every other day for four hours a day. My time was kind of taken away from me.”
He admits he went into a funk, hearing only “needles and blood and the times and days you’re going to be sitting on this machine.”
It didn’t help that Rush’s doctors didn’t offer much in the way of understanding why he’d contracted this disease. So he started digging in and learning more to regain some control over his life.
“I looked into [why we are at such high risk for kidney disease],” he says. “It has a lot to do with the foods we eat, with the way we make our foods. We love our foods, man. It has to do with the way we’re not good with doctor visits. How big our intake of water is. With where we live. We have corner stores that serve chicken, pizza, quick-grab meals that are inexpensive and cater to our pocket, but they’re breaking down everything else.”
It was during this time that Rush was asked to go on tour with Pitbull. His appointments at the dialysis center made the tour—40 cities, 36 nights, from California to New York—impossible. Not to be deterred, he approached his doctors to discuss his options.
“I said, ‘With all this technology, there has to be a way to go on the road and do dialysis.’”
His medical team introduced him to NxStage, a home hemodialysis system that lets patients have control over when and where they dialyze. He committed himself to learning the program and, with the help of his staff, he was able to go on tour. “I was amazed when I got to do the whole 40 dates,” he says.
Rush’s treatment with home hemodialysis is rare for an African American. Black folks are 51 percent less likely to treat kidney failure in this way than white people. Research suggests myriad reasons for this, including provider bias, insurance barriers and lack of access (only 1 in 4 of the more than 5,400 dialysis centers in this country offers home hemodialysis). Rush believes a lack of awareness also plays a major part, and he now devotes time to educating others about the benefits of this form of treatment.
“We hate seeing doctors,” he says. “We’re worried about health insurance. We’re worried about health insurance we don’t have. We can’t afford to miss a day of work because we’re living check to check. But we have to relate to people on a level to where they understand it’s something of importance to go ahead and look into [home hemodialysis]. Home hemo is a way to take the power back into our own hands.”
Rush says his advocacy has made him something of a health expert—both on the road and in his family. “More and more blacks and Hispanics are dying early because of heart attacks and high cholesterol and blood pressure being off the wall,” he says. “I’m trying to make that an uncommon thing. That’s why I speak out as much as I can. I’m always talking to others in the family: Take your blood pressure, check your sugar. I try to stay in everybody’s ear.”
Kidney failure patients remain on dialysis for the rest of their lives, unless they are able to get a transplant. Rush was fortunate to have a brother who was able to donate a kidney to him. Now he’s all about empowering others. “You can slip into depression dealing with this disease. I didn’t start living until I found out I could die,” he says. “If you’re in a situation, empower yourself with knowledge, surround yourself with good people and fight.”
[Related: The Wait for an Organ Transplant]