After developing kidney problems as a child, Nancy Spaeth, the world’s longest surviving kidney patient, died on Jan. 14 at age 74.
“It takes a very big personality to deal with kidney failure and being on dialysis. It takes an even bigger personality to step across the line of dealing with your own health issues to help and inspire others to deal with theirs,” said Katy Wilkens, who was a student dietician at Northwest Kidney Centers in 1975 when she first met Spaeth. “Nancy was a petite person physically, with the biggest personality to help others that I have ever known.”
Nancy began seventh-grade in 1959, which was when she noticed that brushing her thick, wavy, blonde hair became difficult. It also became difficult for the relay runner to race, and one day she noticed that her urine was brown.
After a visit with her doctor, and upon further diagnostic testing, she was diagnosed with Bright’s Disease, or glomerulonephritis. Bright’s Disease causes inflammation and damage to the portion of the kidneys that acts as a filter, and Spaeth’s doctors believed it was caused by numerous yellow jacket stings she had received while hiking in the Cascades the previous summer.
To rid her body of the illness, she was given high doses of prednisone, as well as nitrogen mustard, which caused her to slip in and out of consciousness for days following the treatment.
During fall of 1965, she began attending the University of Arizona, but by February 1966, she grew tired of vomiting in planter boxes outside of her physics class. Spaeth moved back to Seattle that year, continued her studies at the University of Washington, then transferred to Seattle University.
At the time, treatment for chronic kidney failure was still young, and patients of dialysis would need something called a Scribner shunt. At Seattle Artificial Kidney Center, a community panel known as the Admissions and Policy Committee decided which patients would receive dialysis. Spaeth referred to this panel as “The Life and Death Committee.”
The committee process consisted of a visit with a psychiatrist and psychological testing. Spaeth’s family also needed adequate insurance to afford the $30,000 cost. The committee was looking for individuals who could recover and go on to work or contribute to society, according to Spaeth.
Spaeth was selected by the committee to receive dialysis, which she began at the Seattle Artificial Kidney Center on Dec. 26, 1966. Nancy spent a year and a half of receiving in-center dialysis while she was a full-time college student and went on to receive three months of training to begin home dialysis.
She described herself as a normal student who went to parties with friends and dated men, but on the flipside, went to bed on dialysis three nights a week for eight hours, and avoided salt at all costs.
In 1970, Spaeth graduated from Seattle University with a bachelor’s degree in education. Two years later, she received her first kidney transplant from her youngest brother, Charlie, during his spring break from Stanford University.
Spaeth got married and had two children: her first, Joshua, in 1974, and her second child, Sarah, in 1976. She worked as a substitute teacher for K-12 students in the Forks School District, but returned to college to earn a nursing degree in 1979.
In 1979, Nancy Spaeth got food poisoning and lost her kidney transplant. She also divorced from her husband that year.
She received her second transplant, a cadaveric transplant, in 1981, but it failed in 1986, and she went back on dialysis.
Throughout her life, Spaeth participated in numerous research studies. She was accepted into an erythropoietin study at Northwest Kidney Centers (NKC), which made her body feel better, and she became more active. By 1989, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Epogen.
Spaeth received her third kidney transplant in 1989, which she lost in 1995 due to chronic rejection. By 2000, Spaeth received her fourth and final kidney transplant.
Not only was Spaeth a patient, but she was also a supporter of the world leading dialysis provider, Northwest Kidney Centers. She served on the Foundation Board and Board Quality Committee.
Spaeth was a pioneer and an activist when it came to kidney disease. She testified on behalf of kidney patients to both the state and federal levels.
“Nancy was a force for good, a constant advocate and friend to kidney patients,” said Peter Raffa, former Executive Director of Northwest Kidney Foundation. “We went onto educate our elected officials in both Washingtons. Raising more than a few dollars along the way. Nancy singing the praises of NKC, her personal story, love for her family and nursing career. Nancy will be missed by all of us, but oh what a life well lived. NKC’s mission personified.”