FORT LEE, Va. – The success story of Itanya Milligan-Artis goes beyond her recent selection as Kenner Army Health Clinic’s 2021 Registered Nurse of the Year – an accomplishment that earned her a heap of accolades as well as a Civilian Service Achievement Medal.
Two years ago, Milligan-Artis won a battle that far too many lose. She was in need of a kidney transplant to save her life. The answer to her prayers was an experimental clinical trial at VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center, Richmond.
Milligan-Artis, a case manager supervisor at the clinic, eagerly shares the rest of the emotional story with the notion that it will underscore the importance of individuals managing their health care with regular checkups and healthy personal habits.
In 2003, the diagnosis “came out of nowhere,” Milligan-Artis recalled. Renal Cancer had been discovered in her right kidney. She had not experienced any signs or symptoms, which is said to be typical, so regular checkups that include blood and urine testing are the best ways to identify problems early when they can be more-successfully treated.
“I had a full life, raising 3 children with my husband,” Milligan-Artis shared. She was forging her military health care path as a contractor for Tricare at the time. Her husband’s work required occasional trips to Iraq in support of U.S. operations. The children were making their way through middle and high school, and one was starting college.
“All I could think was what this illness would mean,” she reflected. “I went through the stages of grief, disbelief, anger, hurt and self-pity. Eventually, I came to the realization that I can’t just stop living. If there was any hope of beating this thing, I had to keep following up with my health team at Kenner and stick to my medication regimen. I held onto my faith that everything will work out over time.”
Ultimately, the right kidney was removed – a Nephrectomy in medical language – which would not be a problem for most because individuals can live normal lives with just one of those organs. Unfortunately, her’s was not fully functional, and she was subsequently diagnosed in 2012 with end-stage renal disease related to Lupus Nephritis in her left kidney.
“I was still determined to win this fight,” Milligan-Artis asserted. “I was watching my diet and diligently taking my medications. There is no cure for the disease, so the only option I saw was to give myself as much of a fighting chance as possible.”
Regardless of her efforts, she progressively got worst and in 2019 started daily peritoneal dialysis. A machine called a cycler fills and empties a solution from the stomach three-to-five times overnight, basically performing the kidney’s function of cleaning impurities from the intestines. Milligan-Artis said her husband helped her with the arduous process that allowed her to continue working and experiencing other aspects of life.
Milligan-Artis had been placed on the kidney donor list. At least 20,000 people in the U.S. are awaiting transplants at any given time throughout the year. Not surprisingly, few step forward to offer up an organ, and when they do, it requires a series of tests to determine blood type compatibility and the presence of certain antibodies that would need to be suppressed to reduce the chance of rejection in the new host.
“My husband, sons and daughter were a match but they had (incompatible) antibodies, so those options were ruled out,” she said. “That left me where a lot of people are – just waiting to see if that miracle comes along. I was not scared for myself, but my family. I was concerned about not being able to live a full life and take care of them.”
The VCU Health Transplant Center clinical trial began in 2018. It involved transplantation of a deceased donor’s kidney infected with Hepatitis C into a recipient who does not have it, and then curing the virus.
“(We are) one-of-three transplant centers in the U.S. conducting the trial and offering it to patients,” said Dr. Gaurav Gupta, a transplant surgeon at VCU Health. “These are organs that would have otherwise been discarded. The idea that there’s a way to utilize them and save the lives of patients who have little chance of getting a kidney is incredible.’’
Milligan-Artis signed up for the program. A week later, she received notification that a compatible organ was available from a deceased 44-year-old male who had Hepatitis C but no other medical conditions.
“I received a call on April 12, 2019, and I was transplanted on April 13 at 3 a.m.,” she said. “We had to be at the transplant center within 2 hours of that initial call.”
There were no complications during the procedure, according to Milligan-Artis, and a medication she was prescribed quickly ridded the kidney of the Hepatitis C virus. Like all organ donor recipients, she will need to take anti-rejection medications for the rest her life. Nonetheless, she has been in full remission from Lupus since the transplant and continues to be Hepatitis C negative.
Reflecting on her initial diagnosis, Milligan-Artis wonders if it all could have been avoided if she had changed her lifestyle earlier.
“The possibility of renal disease can be reduced by eliminating processed, and high-carb and high-cholesterol foods from your diet,” she advised. “African-Americans are far more likely to acquire renal disease due to the types of foods eaten. It also increases the likelihood of diabetes and hypertension. It’s important to think about, and if our patients at Kenner need more info, we have two dietitians here who can help.”
Milligan-Artis then suggested additional prevention steps such as avoiding tobacco, losing weight if categorized as obese, getting regular checkups, taking prescribed medications as directed, reducing salt intake, avoiding processed food, and eating more fruits and vegetables.
“Having been there myself, I can tell you it’s the worst feeling in the world when you’re hit with that diagnosis of a serious illness,” she said in closing. “That’s the one thing I hope readers take away from this story; that taking care of yourself every day is so important. Eat well, take care of your body, mind and spirit, and don’t stress the small stuff … it will always work out.”
If it has been a while since your last checkup, schedule one today. Kenner beneficiaries can do so anytime day or night throughout the year via the TRICARE Online Patient Portal, www.tricareonline.com. The clinic’s Patient Appointment Line, 1-866-LEE-KAHC (533-5242), is open from 7 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., Monday thru Friday.