The Long WaitNovember 8, 2019
Story by Allen Laman
Photos by Marlena Sloss & Daniel Vasta
When his phone started to ring, Bill Pfister exhaled a sigh of relief.
The newspaper story written about him had spread far and wide. The TV news segment he’d starred in had beamed to television sets throughout the country. One by one, readers and viewers called Bill, prepared to give part of themselves to make him whole again.
For the first time in a long time, he had hope. Hope that he would reach the right person. Hope that he’d find a willing kidney donor. Hope that his life, which had become so fractured and tethered to a machine that caused him so much pain, would once again be normal.
All that was left to do was wait.
Nearly a year later, the Jasper man is still waiting.
He lives his life between dialysis appointments, paralyzed by a tumultuous cycle that has grown to define much of his reality. Fifty-one potential donors from a handful of states have contacted him, moved by his public pleas, to offer him one of their kidneys. Nearly all have been rejected by doctors.
“It’s brutal,” said Bill, 66. “I had no idea it was gonna be the way it is.”
But, there is still hope. Because even though he hasn’t had a transplant yet, three potential donors are currently going through the testing process. One of them could be Bill’s long-awaited match. And even if none are, the compassion they have all shown him has inspired Bill to persist.
No matter how long this wait goes on, he will never give up his search.
Bill retired from working at his own business, Safety Training and Consulting, in 2015. On the clock, he used to walk through factories and lead training seminars in 15 states. In his free time and in retirement, he used to travel the world, spending time in Europe, Africa and Asia. He’d go gambling and vacationing with family and friends.
Before both of his kidneys failed and his body ballooned with 20 pints of fluid and toxins, Bill’s life was full. Now, most of it is spent waiting. Even cooking, his favorite hobby, has become physically challenging.
The past two years have been an ellipsis, a seemingly never-ending string of exhaustion and restriction that will continue until a functioning kidney is back in his abdomen.
“It just came to a screeching halt,” Bill said of how things have changed. A diabetic, he had taken precautions for years to fend off kidney failure. In the end, however, he couldn’t escape it.
Bill’s story was previously reported by The Herald in January. It began on an ordinary evening in April 2018. Bill started feeling woozy and thought his sugar levels had dropped. He asked a friend who was visiting his home to get up and grab a sugar pill from another room.
When his friend returned, he found Bill on the floor. He had fallen smoothly out of the armchair he was seated in like it was a sliding board. Bill was awoken and carried to bed.
The next day, another friend who is a cardiologist stopped by Bill’s house and told him he needed to go to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center. There, it was discovered that he’d had a stroke and that his kidneys were not functioning.
He was then shipped out on an excruciatingly painful ambulance ride from Jasper to Deaconess Midtown Hospital in Evansville. He remembered crying on the way there due to an increased pain sensitivity caused by the high number of toxins in his body.
Every bump in the road made his body jump up and down. It felt like he was bouncing on rocks.
“They thought I was gonna die the night that they took me to Evansville,” Bill said.
At the time, he didn’t know what to think. In addition to being in extreme physical distress, hallucinations and paranoia had overtaken his mind. When he arrived at Deaconess, he behaved maniacally.
He frantically dialed 911 from his hospital bed and told the operator: “I need help. They’re trying to kill me.” He felt desperately that he needed to escape. It wasn’t until undergoing dialysis treatment that he calmed down.
To this day, dialysis machines continue to save his life, while also molding it into a hollow shell of what it once was.
Devices at DaVita Jasper Dialysis regularly clean his blood and remove fluid and waste from Bill’s body since he lacks the internal organs to do it himself. Since Bill needs to be near the machines constantly, his ability to travel or make extended plans is significantly hindered.
He is quick to praise the staff at the local establishment for all they do. Kind and friendly, they make the experience as enjoyable as possible. According to the DaVita website, most people on dialysis enjoy a good quality of life.
“Some people have been on dialysis for 30 years or more without getting a transplant,” the site explains. “How long you can live on dialysis, and how well you do, will depend on a number of things, including how healthy you are, your attitude, your quality of healthcare and how much you take an active role in your care.”
Bill feels fine on days he doesn’t undergo treatment, but the procedures come at a price. The four-hour-long cleansings sap him of his energy and leave him weak on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. When they end, he can hardly walk.
He knew immediately that he didn’t want his life to revolve around dialysis forever. After ruling out family members and close friends as potential donors, Bill grew desperate. He paid for an ad in this newspaper that, along with a photo of himself and other information, included a blunt request.
“Anyone out there willing to give me a kidney?” it read.
Combined with the news article and the TV spot, the response he received was initially overwhelming. People he’d never met called Bill from as far away as Kentucky, Louisiana and Georgia to offer him a kidney. Surely, one would work out, he thought.
“The thing that amazed me the most about the whole situation was that people came forward out of the goodness of being a person,” Bill recalled. Some he’d known and helped over the years. Others were complete strangers prepared to pour their love into a man they knew next to nothing about.
“I had a lot of people that tried to help me,” Bill said. “Even though they tried to help me, it was tough for them to help me, because of the fact that those guidelines got in the way.”
No matter how motivated they were to give, potential donors are required to pass a long list of tests and other requirements before being cleared to give a kidney. They must be a healthy adult with no history of blood sugar or diabetes problems. High blood pressure can rule them out, as can a history of cancer or kidney stones and a body mass index of 32 or more.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, most people with one kidney live normal, healthy lives. One transplanted kidney can work as well as two, and, in general, most people with a single, healthy kidney have few problems.
Per the Mayo Clinic, compared with dialysis, a kidney transplant is associated with a better quality of life, a lower risk of death, fewer dietary restrictions and a lower treatment cost. Fifty-one people have recognized these benefits and have flocked to make a difference in Bill’s life.
His old friend, Ron Prior of Huntingburg, was a prospective donor turned down almost instantly due to previously having a kidney stone surgically removed from his body. Prior recently bumped into Bill at Mama T’s Italian Steak House in Huntingburg, where he told Bill he still regrets not being able to do more.
“I said, ‘Just keep your spirit up,’” Prior said, remembering a conversation they shared. “‘Somebody that’s qualified will step up. Maybe it’s No. 52.’”
Bill’s best friend, Dr. Willy Lehmkuhler of Jasper, was deemed ineligible due to a health condition. He looks after Bill, and in an interview spoke of the difference Bill has made in the lives of many.
“I’ve known him forever, and he’s a good friend,” Lehmkuhler said. “He would have done the same for me.”
Another man, one who knew of Bill but was never close with him, jumped at the opportunity to help without any hesitation. Though his kidneys have also been ruled out, he still thinks about Bill often.
“If I was in Bill’s place, I would wish that someone would do that for me,” said Mike Allen of Jasper. “I actually think it’s part of my faith, for one thing, but it’s also the American spirit. We help one another.”
Recently, Bill’s life has followed a long, winding road filled with feelings of frustration and helplessness. How could none of them be a match? How can the process be so slow?
Questions like these can weigh him down. But it’s the outpouring of love he feels that keeps him looking to the future.
“It’s the only thing that’s kept me going,” Bill said.
The Herald plans to continue to follow Bill in his search for a kidney. Anyone interested in donating a kidney can contact him at 812-482-5811.