A Canadian on-air news personality is sharing her private struggle with end-stage kidney disease to encourage more people to sign up for organ donation.
Cristina Howorun’s life was turned upside down after she learned she had less than 10 per cent kidney function and required immediate lifesaving dialysis.
Howorun, who is a CityNews Toronto reporter, says she initially dismissed her fatigue as the price of working long days chasing local news. Strange bruises, itchy skin and dizziness raised red flags, culminated in days spent in bed out of sheer exhaustion.
In March 2018 during a trip to the grocery store, Howorun stopped to check her blood pressure and take a rest. When her reading came back high, she contacted her doctor who ordered blood tests, and awaited results that would drastically change her life.
“I had just left a press conference where I had to crouch on the floor in heels and a dress because I couldn’t handle standing for longer than five minutes,” Howorun writes in a piece for Chatelaine, called “‘Within 24 Hours, I Went From Being On-Air To Being Hooked Up To An IV’.”
“My cameraman Tony and I were driving to our next interview when my doctor’s office called and ordered me to get to the nearest emergency room. They said my kidneys were failing.”
At the hospital, doctors informed her that her kidney function ranged between 6 and 8 per cent, and her creatine levels were 10 times what they should be for a woman in her mid-late 30s.
Kidney disease ran in Howorun’s family, with her father requiring a kidney transplant for a rare inherited condition called Alport syndrome. Despite being monitored until she was eighteen at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, Howorun says doctors had advised her not to worry, as most women with the genetic condition were carriers.
“My specialist was frank about my situation, but optimistic,” she writes. “He told me I would need dialysis; that with end stage-kidney failure I was essentially sterile and unlikely to be able to have children until I received a transplant, and that if I didn’t get a transplant I would eventually die.”
After her mother was ruled out as a possible donor, she began peritoneal dialysis, which required a catheter to be surgically installed in her abdomen. For nine hours each night Howorun hooks herself up to her dialysis machine that helps filter her kidneys.
Adjusting to her new life has been difficult, with sleepless nights and a diet overhaul.
“My home office is now my dialysis room, stacked with cardboard boxes of supplies, which are delivered monthly in a big truck. I had to start tracking my blood pressure four times a day,” Howorun writes. “Even when I’m bloated with fluids, I need to weigh myself twice a day—not exactly an ego boost—and determine how much of each solution I’ll need that night. I take a battery of vitamins and pills and shots to keep my hemoglobin, iron and protein levels high enough and my phosphorous levels down. I’ve become part nurse, part warehouse manager.”
Howorun says waiting for a kidney has been a lesson in patience, with many of her immediate family ruled out as potential donors. With her cousin Christine currently undergoing tests to be verified as a donor, Howorun revealed she feels a mixture of gratitude and guilt.
“It’s not exactly an easy ask. You’re not borrowing a dress or even a few thousand dollars, you’re asking somebody to undergo massive surgery and modify their way of life. People can easily live with one kidney, but they’re at greater risk of high blood pressure and in some rare cases, even kidney failure. There’s also the chance that the recipient’s body will reject the kidney—making the entire process, which includes a recommended six-week recovery time—futile,” she explains. “I’m grateful but it’s awkward. I want to call her every day to tell her how thankful I am that she’s going through this, but it feels like I’m adding extra pressure. Every time I comment on her Facebook posts, I worry that she’ll think I’m only doing so because I want her kidney.”
While she waits for a match, Howorun says she was compelled to share her story and help raise awareness for kidney disease, and the thousands of Canadians who are in need of a donor.
“I decided to share my journey through my diagnosis and dialysis because that’s what journalists do-share stories- and sometimes, they are our own,” she writes. “I really believe that if everybody simply signed their organ donor cards, most of us living with this disease wouldn’t have to struggle for so long. There’s no cure, and there isn’t anything I could’ve done to prevent it. But there is a cure for the years of waiting and uncertainty and it’s so easy; most provinces, like Ontario, allow you to register to be an organ donor online. And earlier this month, Nova Scotia tabled legislation that would require adults to opt-out of organ donation—essentially making most people potential donors.”
Having since returned to work, Howorun says she’s “cautiously optimistic” about receiving a kidney in the near future.
“If it all works out, I could have a new kidney and be able to reclaim my life by Christmas,” she writes. “If not, I’ll continue to be tied to a machine each night, switching positions every hour, dreaming of freedom and the possibility of my life getting back on track.”
What is kidney disease?
Kidney disease refers to a variety of disorders and diseases that affect the kidneys and impair kidney function. Although chronic kidney disease (CKD) can range in severity and in severe cases lease to kidney failure.
Although kidney disease typically develops over time, there are cases where kidney failure occurs rapidly.
According to the Kidney Foundation of Canada, one in 10 Canadians have chronic kidney disease, with more than 49,000 Canadians treated for kidney failure.
Symptoms of kidney disease
While most people don’t often have symptoms until kidney function has been severely compromised, it is possible to detect early stages of kidney disease with a blood or urine test.
When kidney function declines, the body develops uremia (blood in the urine) which can present with symptoms such as weight loss, fatigue, leg cramps, itching, bruising, trouble sleeping, chest pain, nausea and vomiting.
Who is at risk?
The leading cause of kidney failure in Canada is diabetes. The Kindey Foundation of Canada recommends people living with diabetes receive kidney function testing at least once a year.
High blood pressure, vascular diseases and a family history of kidney disease are all risk factors for developing kidney problems. Lifestyle habits such as smoking, or consistent use of drugs such as ibuprofen can all increase your chances of kidney disease.
Click here for more information on kidney disease and prevention.