Winthrop man adjusts to life on dialysis
By Laurelle Walsh
Friends and family of Randy Thordarson filled the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood on Nov. 28 for a dance party to benefit the Winthrop resident, who suffers from end-stage renal disease.
Thordarson is currently on home dialysis and is on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. He has been unable to work since last May.
There are many ways a person may have crossed paths with Thordarson in the Methow, most likely at performance of the Rivertown Ramblers, with whom he sings and plays guitar and bass; on stage with other local bands; on a mountain bike or ski trail; or through Valley Gardening — his landscape installation and maintenance business of the last 15 years. His wife, Kathy Carney, has been a familiar face at Cinnamon Twisp Bakery for more than a decade.
But Thordarson’s activities have been restricted since he was admitted to Central Washington Hospital on May 15, 2014, due to worsening kidney failure. It was determined that day that his kidneys were functioning at 3 percent of normal. He received his first hemodialysis treatment that night.
“Everyone said I looked so much better after my first dialysis. I don’t generally look at myself in the mirror that much; how bad did I look before?” Thordarson wonders.
Progression of the disease
Thordarson, 61, first learned of his kidney disease about 14 years ago, thanks to a “smart intern,” he said. He had gone without health insurance for years, but after getting coverage for a time through Carney’s employer, began seeing a doctor.
After Thordarson was diagnosed with high blood pressure, the intern who suspected kidney trouble ordered an ultrasound test, and Stage 1 chronic kidney disease was confirmed.
In 2007 as the disease worsened, he began seeing a nephrologist annually and getting blood tests every three months. The tiny blood vessels that are supposed to remove wastes and extra fluids from his body “were all shriveled up,” he said.
But finding himself without health insurance again, deciding what medical treatments to get “was pick and choose for many years,” Thordarson said. “I didn’t hesitate to go to the doctor once I was covered under Obamacare last year,” he added.
Since he began dialysis, Medicare has covered most medical expenses.
Thordarson was able to manage the disease “pretty well” with a low-salt, low-protein diet and Chi Kung exercises, he said. He has been physically active his whole life, doing long-distance bicycle tours and solo kayak trips, and Nordic skiing, as well as a physically demanding job.
But as the disease progressed, Thordarson’s energy level decreased, and dialysis became inevitable. “I put it off as long as I could,” he said, knowing that once he was on dialysis, he could not stop unless he got a kidney transplant.
From May through July 2014, Thordarson became a regular at the Omak Dialysis Center, where a machine filtered wastes, salts and fluid from his blood for four hours at a time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. A fistula was surgically placed in his belly that would allow him to do home dialysis within a few months.
He began training for home dialysis in Omak on July 21, during the power outage and highway closures that resulted from the Carlton Complex Fire. He did intensive training with a nurse all day and slept in his travel trailer in the parking lot at night. “It lent to good study habits, alone at night in my trailer. I aced all my tests,” Thordarson said.
On the transplant list
He went home on July 25 and began doing manual dialysis — a gravity-powered system that doesn’t require electricity — four times a day for five weeks. Since Aug. 28 he has switched to an automated peritoneal dialysis machine for 9 ½ hours every night, and still does one manual exchange every afternoon.
“The manual exchange is a safeguard in case of a power failure,” like the one Winthrop experienced during the last snowstorm, Thordarson said. “Also, the more dialysis the better.”
Thordarson said he has read a lot of good books and learned to sleep pretty well through the night, but admits that Carney had to move to the sofa due to the machine’s noise. “It has definitely been a disruption in our lives,” he said. “Kathy deserves a lot of credit as a caregiver. My summer would have been pretty tough without her.
“The transplant can’t come soon enough,” he said. “I’d kind of like to get my life back.”
Thordarson’s transplant coordinator gave him clearance for a kidney transplant on Nov. 6, and the University of Washington Medical Center is currently testing the first potential donor for compatibility.
Once a good match is found, more testing and crossmatching must be done before a transplant can take place. Thordarson figures he’ll spend three weeks in the hospital post surgery, followed by a month at his brother’s home in Lynnwood.
Until then, dialysis replaces about 15 percent of normal kidney function. He still suffers from fatigue, and in the long term it will be a strain on his heart, he said.
At this time of year he would normally be working long days taking Santa photos at 11 shopping malls in the Seattle area — his winter job for the last 34 years — but “it just didn’t make sense for me to do it this year,” he said. He filed for disability insurance six months ago, and is still waiting for the first check to come in.
The fundraising party in Ballard on Nov. 28 “was a smashing success,” according to Thordarson’s GoFundMe administrator Lorene Hipp. Together, the party and the GoFundMe site “winthroprandy” have raised about $12,000 to help cover medical and living expenses.
To donate, or for more information, go to www.gofundme.com/winthroprandy.