Combat vet in desperate search for gift of life
December 6, 2013
FORT^POLK, La. -- Soldiers are fighters trained to undertake difficult tasks and beat the odds. Some seem to have an innate store of composure, toughness and pride in themselves and their duty. That strength allows them to go the distance no matter the challenges.
Retired Staff Sgt. Aretha H. Owens is such a Soldier. Fighting through three tours of duty in Iraq, she made it home to her husband (John) and children (Brianna, 15 and Jonathan, 7) only to find out that she had yet to fight the biggest battle of her life. That struggle -- the fact that she has lost the use of both kidneys --has defined her existence since returning from her last deployment. Though she is currently receiving dialysis treatments and needs a new kidney to survive, hope remains the driving force behind her will to live. And as any warrior who has served honorably for 22 years in the Army knows, most conflicts can't be fought alone.
Owen's first deployment was in the Gulf War from June-May 1991. Her second go-round was from July 2003 to August 2004 as a member of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. After that, she ended up staying in the Army and deployed with the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division from Nov. 2007 to Dec. 2008. That's where this story begins…
The last deployment was tough, she said, with a lot of attacks and, as a result, many casualties. One of the biggest assaults was on her forward operating base. The bombs came down like rain. "Soldiers were running everywhere. They were trying to take cover anywhere they could. Some hid under vehicles and were burned to death. Too many young Soldiers were killed," said Owens.
But as a noncommissioned officer, she said, maintaining a façade of calm at all times was important. "People were screaming and you couldn't show fear or panic. Grief was something that you really didn't express because you had to keep it together for your Soldiers," said Owens. "I tried to do my job well. As a leader, you want to be strong so your Soldiers will follow you and have confidence in your leadership skills. So, I never showed pain, anguish, fear or any other emotion even though I felt it as much as any of my Soldiers. I internalized a great deal of it."
In subsequent weeks, Owens began feeling sick. But the reality was that when people are losing body parts, not feeling quite right seems like a small problem in comparison, she said. She began noticing alarming symptoms. "I worked the night shift and I noticed that I was having trouble making it to the bathroom. I just thought it was my nerves and anxiety because everybody was nervous. But no matter what was wrong, I made up my mind that I was going to make it through the deployment and go home. I had started with my unit and I wanted to finish with them," she said.
Owens made it back to the States and continued to have health issues. She was diagnosed with adjustment and post-traumatic stress disorders, which she admits caused some of her difficulties. But something else just wasn't right. "I kept having problems with my side and I couldn't stand up. There were days I couldn't go to work. They put me in the Warrior Transition Unit because I just couldn't focus. I was having such a hard time," said Owens.
Thinking her problems might be female-related, Owens made an appointment with an obstetrics and gynecology doctor. "I was very weak at that point. They ran urine and blood tests and when the results came in they told me to get to an emergency room. The doctor told me they were going to send me to Alexandria for some tests because I was having some problems with my kidneys," said Owens.
Owens was moved to Rapides Regional Medical Center in Alexandria, where doctors came right to the point. "I was told I had only five percent kidney function and that my kidneys were gone. "It just didn't make any sense. I was wracked with should haves, could haves and would haves. I blamed this and that, but it didn't change anything," said Owens.
The next day she was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, Texas, where she remained for 30 days while the medical team ran a series of tests to find out what had happened to her kidneys. In the end, they determined that her kidney failure was caused by a complex combination of high blood pressure, stress, anxiety, battle fatigue and more. "I got my first dialysis treatment in San Antonio. They had to put a catheter in my chest that went straight into my heart. I couldn't do anything for myself. It was very taxing on my body," said Owens. "You can't keep the catheter in your heart for a long time -- six months to a year at the most because it can make the heart weak, make you susceptible to infections and send you into congestive heart failure."
The average life expectancy of a person on dialysis is only about five years, according to www.livingkidneydonorsearch.com. The website also states that one out of every four patients on dialysis dies of a heart attack, but that a transplant provides a far longer life expectancy.
Doctors cut a vein in Owen's left arm and attached it to another vein to make it stronger. That takes three months to heal. Once it heals (mature) that arm is used for dialysis. "You have two holes in your arm -- one going in and one going out. They stick your vein twice. They may not be able to get a good stick initially, so they sometimes have to dig into your arm to get into the vein. They have to be very careful or they could blow your vein. They don't take your heart catheter out until they stick your arm several times. Once they are sure the vein can take the treatment, they can take the catheter out. From that point on the dialysis happens in your arm. This is your lifeline," said Owens.
The problem with dialysis, according to www.livingkidneydonorsearch.com, is that it's so damaging to the body that it isn't a long-term treatment option. It's only a stopgap measure until you can get a transplant. That's why dialysis can do only about 10 percent of the work that a functioning kidney can do and frequently causes other severe health problems such as anemia, infection, bone disease, heart disease, and nerve damage.
"Once you use up one arm, they go to the other. If that arm goes, they will put the needles in a leg. Once all other options are exhausted, they go back into the chest. At that point, it's over. It's like a cat that has run out of its nine lives," said Owens.
Running out of viable options as dialysis takes its toll on you and is one of the most stressful parts of being ill for Owens. "It's hard to go to the dialysis clinic every week knowing that someone else you are acquainted with that is receiving the same treatment has died. It messes with your head because you think, when is my day?" she said.
But it's not her day yet. Owens has been put on the kidney transplant list at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. She has been on the list a few months, but there are still more challenges to overcome. Though Owens has O-positive blood, a universal blood type, she is still having difficulty finding a donor because of her panel reactive antibodies -- the measure of percentage of human antibodies in a transplant candidate's blood.
"My PRA is at 96 percent. Most people's is at 0. That means I have to have a special kidney that will match my blood type and PRAs. If they give me any kidney, my body is going to reject it because my antibodies are so strong that they will fight to the end what they feel is an invasion," she said.
She said it's a bit ironic that her body is so healthy in every other way. "If I get a cut or sick, those same antibodies help me heal very quickly because my immune system is so powerful," she said.
Owen's PRA is high because she received many immunizations before deployments. "In the military you have to be immunized before you go to foreign countries. They want to protect the Soldiers from any diseases that might hinder them from completing their mission," she said.
That's why her best chance at receiving a kidney transplant might be from a veteran willing to make that sacrifice.
Looking back, Owens said it's easy to see how kidney failure snuck up on her. "You don't know you have it and I was a type A personality. I enjoyed stressful situations and deadlines, but the whole time high blood pressure was killing my kidneys," she said.
She said when Soldiers are deployed they fantasize about a lot of things that they are going to do when they get home. "The only thing I fantasized about was being mom of the year. That's all I wanted to do, but illness won't help me. I attempt to look at things in a positive way and try not to be negative because my situation, though bad, could always be worse," she said.
She said she dreamed for years of a Family trip to Hawaii to celebrate her retirement. The reality of the situation is much different. "I could go to Hawaii, but it seems pointless because I wouldn't be able to enjoy it like a normal person. Though I attend church, it's tough to make it to other events and activities they offer. I do dialysis Monday, Wednesday and Friday and try to recover the rest of the week and that makes doing anything else difficult," said Owens.
Her health has had a devastating affect on Owens and her Family. She said the emotional costs are high, especially on the children. "When my son comes home from school the first thing he does is call my name to make sure I'm not sick or at the hospital. He's only 7, but he is afraid to leave me because he thinks somebody has to be with me all the time to protect me. My daughter is angry. She's at an age where she wants her mother to be able to do stuff with her. High school is supposed to be an exciting time in her life. She is in a lot of activities. She really wants me to go to a Friday night football game. That's a big deal to her. But I have dialysis on Friday. I'm exhausted. My mind wants to go but my body won't cooperate. My mind and body don't work together anymore. I can't even clean house or cook -- I don't like to cook, but I would and now I can't," she said.
She also worries that she can't be the wife that her husband needs her to be. "He likes being active, but when you see him, you hardly ever see me. He is the one that has to cook, clean and be there for the kids. It has gotten to the point that he suffers from caregiver burn out. Though he has friends, he rarely gets to see them because he doesn't have time for a social life. But he never complains."
Owens said she is saddened by her Family's struggle. "The little things that other people take for granted are such a big deal to me. It hurts my heart that I can't be the parent and wife that I want to be," said Owens.