It’s Sunday night, and the dialysis machines at Emory Healthcare in Midtown are whirring and beeping. Otherwise the clinic is quiet as 20 patients receive a lifesaving treatment that uses a special machine to clean their blood. One of them is wearing a B’nai B’rith T-shirt and a baseball cap.
Frank Moiger, 60, sits in his favorite lounge chair with needles in his arm connected to tubes circulating his Type B blood through a dialysis machine that filters out waste, salt and excess fluid. Like healthy kidneys, the process has kept his body in balance for many years. Tonight he will shed 6 pounds of fluid.
This is his life, three nights a week, six hours at a time. A modest, private person, he agreed to a visit during dialysis to help others understand what it’s like to be a kidney patient.
He talked about his experience as part of National Kidney Month, observed every March to raise awareness of the importance of your kidneys to your overall health and support the 26 million Americans living with kidney disease. Information on kidney health, free screenings, organ donation and more is at the National Kidney Foundation website (www.kidney.org).
“I developed kidney disease before my bar mitzvah,” said Moiger, who grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. “I’m lucky we do have dialysis. People with end-stage heart disease don’t have that opportunity. I’ve shown a person can do well on dialysis.”
He started on dialysis at age 22. “I went in to see the doctor because I had horrible headaches and was sick to my stomach. He sent me to the hospital, and I was put on dialysis.”
Moiger had planned a career in the hospitality industry and was employed at a downtown Atlanta hotel at the time. He lost his management training position, which would have required traveling between properties across the country, because of his dialysis regimen. “Nobody knew much about what dialysis was back then.”
But he still worked a 60-hour week as assistant food and beverage manager at one property.
The life expectancy for a dialysis patient then was five years. Moiger poured himself into his health and patient advocacy. In the 1980s he worked as associate director for the Georgia affiliate of the National Kidney Foundation and volunteered for the American Association of Kidney Patients, serving as Atlanta chapter president.
After about 10 years on dialysis, the access port to connect the equipment to his bloodstream started going out, requiring a procedure to fix it almost every three months. “It became disheartening,” Moiger said. “That’s when I went on a kidney transplant list.”
A donor match was made in 1990. He rushed to the University of Alabama at Birmingham Transplant Center for a transplant. Staying in Birmingham for two weeks after leaving the hospital to make sure everything went well, he discovered a baseball card shop, marking another turning point in his life.
“I used to just collect cards as a kid and put them away. I had some cards I remembered and wanted to see how much they were worth. I thought maybe $300 each; at that time they were worth $1,200 each,” Moiger said.
Back home in Atlanta, he started two businesses, FairPlay Sportscards and Atlanta Area Sports Collectibles Shows. He likes to collect Jewish stars he remembers from childhood, including Sandy Koufax. A diehard Vols fan, he also favors University of Tennessee standouts.
“What I like about the business now is I’m seeing more baby boomers bringing in their kids and grandkids. Their dads and granddads are handing down their hobby to them,” said Moiger, who is single.
The enterprising kidney patient runs his businesses around his dialysis schedule. Why is he back on dialysis? The donated kidney lasted 13 years, then it failed.
After he lost his transplant, he dreaded the prospect of returning to dialysis. “I didn’t want to do it the second time. I wanted to die,” he said. “But for some reason HaShem said, ‘I’m not ready for you yet.’ ”
He was in home hospice but still running shows on the weekends with a lot of help from friends. People told him, “You really don’t want to die because you’re still doing shows.”
One day in 2004, blood oozed from his feet, and his sister took him to the hospital. He returned to dialysis on the anniversary of his transplant and has remained on it ever since.
“I had to put a lot into staying alive,” Moiger said. “To make it to 60 years old, I had to concentrate on how to do well on dialysis. It took every part of my being. I didn’t have a chance to do in life what most normal people do.”
Moiger remains hopeful. His name is on a transplant list through the University of Alabama at Birmingham Transplant Center and soon, he hopes, Emory University. Because of his blood type and other factors, it has been a long wait.
“I would just be grateful not to be on dialysis anymore. I would have that part of my life back and do things on my own schedule,” he said. “I also could eat bananas and baked potatoes again. I love those two foods so much. But they’re really high in potassium; potassium can stop the heart if you can’t excrete it. I would enjoy those simple things everyone else takes for granted.”
Dr. Stephen Pastan, the medical director of the Kidney and Pancreas Transplant Program at the Emory Transplant Center, said the success rate should still be good if a kidney is found that proves a good match.
“We know that patients who are eligible for and receive a transplant feel better and live longer than those who stay on dialysis in most settings,” said Pastan, who also serves as associate professor of medicine at Emory University.
He said the need for donors remains great, with more than 100,000 patients on kidney wait lists nationally: “With only about 17,000 to 18,000 kidney transplants per year, it’s critical that we focus our energies in promoting living donation. This is something we’re working hard on at Emory.”
The National Kidney Foundation has launched a public awareness campaign on living donation called The Big Ask, The Big Give (www.kidney.org/transplantation/livingdonors). Georgia is one of the first states to roll out the program.
Rabbi Ilan Feldman, the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Jacob, said it is absolutely appropriate for a Jew to be an organ donor. “Of course, like everything else in life, there are halachic guidelines to follow, but the idea of saving a life by giving of your own being is the ultimate chesed (kindness).”
Ronda Robinson and Frank Moiger have been friends since childhood in Knoxville, where they attended their first AZA dance together.