Gelenda Smith and Ralph Kent with their home hemodialysis machine. PHOTO BY MARC ZIENKIEWICZ
Ralph Kent is a man on a mission.
The 64-year-old has made the Brokenhead Ojibway Nation one of only two First Nations in Manitoba to take part in the Seven Oaks Hospital home hemodialysis program.
And he wants to get the word out in the hope that more people will learn about it and discover the benefits just like he has.
"I want the message to get out that First Nations people can do this," he says. "There's so many negative stereotypes out there, but I'm proof that this can be done."
Earlier in August, staff from Seven Oaks Hospital installed Kent's very own dialysis machine in his home on the First Nation, located 40 km northeast of Selkirk.
He uses the machine for four hours at a time, four times per week. It cleans his blood and keeps him alive as his kidneys fail due to diabetes.
"I almost died," he says. "But this machine has been a life-saver."
Ralph and wife Gelenda Smith were chosen to participate in the Seven Oaks Hospital Home Hemodialysis Program earlier this year, and the result is not just better health, but a better overall quality of life for Ralph.
Having the machine in his home means he doesn't have to travel to Selkirk or Winnipeg every other day for dialysis, as many on-reserve Aboriginal people in Manitoba do.
According to provincial data, First Nations people experience four times the provincial diabetes rate in the 20-to-65 age group, and about 2.5 times the rate for those age 65 and older.
One of the complications of diabetes is kidney failure. Many patients in the final stage of kidney failure require some form of chronic dialysis or a kidney transplant as a permanent life-sustaining therapy.
Patients have to travel long distances several times a week to a hospital to receive treatment.
In 2008, Seven Oaks Hospital started its Home Hemodialysis Program as a pilot program with the ability to train two patients at a time, with training taking about two months, according to Dr. Paul Komenda, medical director of the program.
It's been expanded since then, adding new training spaces which allows patients to access training in preparation for home hemodialysis.
Ralph's machine works more slowly than a typical dialysis machine, and he uses it more frequently. Typically, dialysis patients go to a hospital three times per week where they receive a five-hour treatment each time.
Ralph's four-hour sessions four times per week mean less of a strain on his body. He's slowly working up to using the machine for seven or eight-hour periods during the night while he sleeps.
"It really empowers the patient," says Brokenhead Ojibway Nation Health Director Dan Wiebe. "I'm really looking forward to Ralph's success with this. He has a lot to give to his family and community, and the healthier he is, the better."
Wiebe says home hemodialysis means patients have more control over managing their own health, and that's always a good thing.
"It's so much easier on the client. They're heathier, happier. You can just see it in their face."
Ralph and Gelenda began training to use the machine, which stands about six feet tall, back in May.
"It was pretty overwhelming at first. There's so much to learn," Gelenda says. "At first I wanted to quit, I just felt so overwhelmed. But we kept at it and now it feels like second nature. It gets easier."
Hospital staff had to hook the machine directly into their home's water system, and supplied Ralph and Gelenda with a wealth of equipment to keep the machine maintained and in working order.
"It's a lot to learn. It's not easy, but you have to keep at it," Ralph says.
While in training in Winnipeg, he and Gelenda met another couple learning how to use the machine.
"It wasn't so easy for them. But they kept trying and eventually they could. If you really try, anyone can learn this. This can help a lot of people."
"We haven't even begun to tap the full potential of home hemodialysis," he says.