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I’m happy and grateful with my new life

Dana Houston is a picture of health today.

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by Rhonda Hagan

D

ana Houston wants to get a job and be useful to someone. She hasn’t been able to get one for a long time, not because she didn’t want to, but she wasn’t able to because renal disease took hold of her body that restricted her from everyday life. Dana’s illness kept her in hospital for the best part of 10 years. Now nine months after her life saving kidney transplant, she is ready to live a normal life. “I need my sanity,” she told First Nations Telegraph with a smile. “There’s only so much reality TV I can watch.” Dana is ready to go back to reality after all the years of hospitals, medicine, blood, doctors, specialists, nurses, sickness, worry and stress. She wants a normal life. Dana is one of many Aboriginal people who suffered from renal disease. She is one of those who seems to have it run in the family. Her mother, Barbara, affectionately called Ma by Dana, suffered for many years from renal failure brought on by diabetes. Barb had her legs amputated and went on dialysis three times a week. She also suffered an aggressive form of ovarian cancer which finally took her life in July 2010. “I wish I had listened Page 2

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to my Ma about my health concerns. I’d probably still have gotten Chronic Renal Failure but perhaps later in life - perhaps after I’d had the chance to have kids ... maybe it wouldn’t have been so chronic. Maybe, but maybe not,” Dana said. Dana has lived in and near hospitals for most of her 38 years. First with her mother and more recently she herself has been admitted may times. The first real medical kidney issue was her maternal grandmother’s sister. “She [Aunty Linda] had major kidney failure and then was on dialysis. I was only about 5 years old,” the ‘Cunnamulla girl’ said. The next person to suffer was her mother, Barbara. There were a few other relatives who developed diabetes, including one of whom suffered kidney failure and received a kidney transplant from a family member. “I guess there’s really close family ties to the diabetes and kidney failure and it’s riddled on my Nan’s side,” Dana said. In an ironic twist, Dana discovered the same disease took her father’s life, while she was in Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital receiving her kidney transplant. “When I was in hospital, about 5 days after my transplant, my dad was in the same

Dana with her Nan, Mary Mitchell and Ma, Barbara Mitchell. All images supplied by Dana Houston.

hospital, He died in Intensive Care from kidney failure and I never got to meet him,” she said. “It was bizarre that he was there when I was. He died from the same disease I have. He was 57. I guess I still really haven’t taken it in because I’d just come out of a transplant, just getting my head around that, let alone my dad, who I hadn’t even met, was in the same place that I was, and died of kidney failure.” Dana and her mother were always very close and after Barbara had finished her education degree she moved to Sydney to take up a Lecturer position at the University of

Technology Sydney. Dana lived in Roma and was told by her mother to not follow her to Sydney. When Dana sought to get a transfer to Canberra with her job and be with some friends, Barbara asked her to move to Sydney. “I was about 23 years old and Mum told me to move to Sydney so I knew something was wrong,” she said. Dana learned of her mother’s illness so lived with her while working at a university. “She told me she was sick in 1996 or 1967 ... so I went to Sydney and straight after that she was taking appointments for dialysis and she


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Left: Dana on the day of her kidney transplant, and above, after the transplant, Dana was given high doses of steroids to stop her body rejecting the kidney.

succumbed to the daily life of a renal patient,” Dana said. This was the beginning of medical interventions for Barbara for the rest of her life. Barbara began with peritoneal dialysis which could be done at home, but soon developed further complications and had to be put on hemodialysis, which meant regular visits three times a week to the hospital to be hooked up to a machine to clean the kidneys. Dana was not aware of how sick her mother was, because she went to work each day while her mother had her hospital visits and treatment so she was not fully aware of what was involved.

Living in a city a long way from home and family support in Cunnamulla was taking it’s toll on both Barbara and Dana. “Looking back on those times now, I was young, in Sydney for the first time, partying up. I never really focused on what mum was going through,” Dana reflected sadly. Barbara developed ulcers and her legs were eventually amputated, which eventually forced them to make the decision to move to Toowoomba in Queensland in 2000. “We had to renovate the house to accommodate Mum’s wheelchair such as ramps and wider doors,” she said. Once Barbara was settled back home and carers organised, Dana

went back to work at the local University. Although she was at work, she says she never fully concentrated because she was too worried about her mother at home. After being up at night taking care of Barbara if she wasn’t well, Dana still went to work during the day. “As much as I tried to commit myself to work there was part of me that didn’t want to be there,” Dana said. Dana’s Nan visited often and stayed for months at a time to take care of Barbara and Dana. Barbara enjoyed the ‘comforts of home’ when her own mother was visiting. “Nan came down from Cunnamulla and stayed for months, something you can’t expect from her, but she did stay to help us out.” Dana said. Then Dana got sick. She was told she had renal failure, the

disease that was taking her mother’s life. “I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want mum to know because she would have stressed and worried.” But Barbara may have known without letting her daughter know. Barbara set up a fund with her solicitor in case Dana had to undergo a kidney transplant in the future. All Barbara wanted for her daughter was to be happy, to find someone to love and who loved her. “That happened. I found Justin,” Dana said with a smile. Justin and Dana met and developed a beautiful relationship so decided to get married. “I told Justin he could bail out of our relationship because I wasn’t going to get better. I had measured my illness against my mum’s and it didn’t look too good.” Justin stayed. “We rushed our

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wedding so she could be there, and I knew she was happy. She left a letter for Justin in her will – probably telling him ‘good luck with her’,” Dana said. After Barbara underwent approximately 168 operations, Dana did not realise what was involved or what she was going through. When they received the news that Barbara had only months to live, they drew up a ‘bucket list’ of things to do. “They were just little things, like going out to dinner every Friday night, or going to the movies,” she said sadly. “I’d lay in the room with her and play her favourite songs and chat about everything.” Barbara lost her battle in July 2010 in Dana’s arms. On the day of Barbara’s funeral, Dana’s kidneys failed. She was admitted to hospital and one month later was operated on to have a fistula inserted, ready for hemodialysis: a connection to a machine three times a week to rid her body of toxins, a role her kidneys failed to do. “When I came back to Toowoomba, they had me booked in for dialysis on the same days and times and the same chair as mum. I told them they couldn’t do that to me, so they changed it all around. “My Nephrologist Page 4

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told me I would have at least three to five years without dialysis, but the stress hurried that up. I had panic attacks, anxiety and depression to top things off,” she said. During Dana’s regular dialysis treatments, she met her new

Dana as a toddler with her mother, Barbara Mitchell

doctor. He placed her on the transplant list and within one month, at 10 o’clock at night, Dana received a phone call with the news that she was required to go to Brisbane because there was a kidney available for her. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “It was chaos. Justin had to pack my bag. He was excited about it and raced around to get me to Brisbane.” Dana said she was always hopeful for a new kidney but thought it wouldn’t happen. “I was black,

overweight and had diabetes, which meant three things against me. To be given that opportunity to have a transplant is just amazing,” Dana said. “I reckon it was mum who pushed this transplant through.” A close friendship was

developed with another Aboriginal woman, Jeanette from Cherbourg. Dana said she was only on the transplant list for six weeks before she received her kidney. “I was lucky to have Jeanette there. I would have gone crazy. We used to go out to Starbucks because we were constantly reminded of illnesses with the views and smells of hospital,” she said. “We needed an Indigenous family for support, so we organised Jeanette and I in the room together.” The hospital has an Indigenous Liaison

Unit who organized everything for Dana and Jeanette. “They arranged for Nan to come in from Cunnamulla and let us use the phone if we needed to call home. “If we didn’t have those two staff, I don’t know what we would have done. I am most grateful to them.” Dana developed complications after her transplant, first her body rejected the kidney, and her steroid doses were increased, causing a 30kg weight gain. “About 2 weeks after the transplant, I was discharged, but had to go back every day for checks. They found I had an infection, so I had to have another operation,” she said. “I was in hospital for 12 weeks straight. I developed this bug that was resistant to almost all antibiotics. I thought ‘this was it, it didn’t work’. I had to give my life up to doctors and specialists and I had to trust they knew what they were doing.” Throughout her stay in Brisbane over approximately 8 months, Dana and Justin had to meet costs for accommodation, food and other incidentals while undergoing treatment. “I think all up it would have cost us around $10,000.,” Dana said. “I’m so grateful Mum had money left for me,


otherwise I don’t know what we would have done. “What about everyone else who actually don’t have the money to do that? The hospital help a little bit, but I have told alot of people to make sure they save money for when they get a transplant because they will need it.” Dana is not sure how Justin coped throughout her illness, but she says he was her strength and couldn’t wish for a better man. “He was always there for me all the time and doesn’t show his stress to me, which I’m sure he suffered from through all this.” Now Dana and Justin are looking forward to being able to go on an overseas holiday. “We’ve never been able to go away from here for more than two days because of dialysis, but now we can do anything we want to,” Dana said. She has reflected on her short life and knows she has experienced much more than anyone else. She developed a bond with God, who she was angry with for taking her mother. “I’d always believed in God, but it wasn’t until I was really in dire straits that I realised I needed to get my faith,” she said. “I used to ring the chaplain. Jeanette was faithful too so we used

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All Barbara wanted for her daughter was to be happy, to find someone to love and who loves her. “That happened. I found Justin.”

to pray together. It was a beautiful connection. It really brought me back to God.” Dana has also said the transplant was one of the biggest journeys of her life. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and the hardest I’ll ever do. That’s somebody’s body part inside me,” she reflected. “It did teach me a lot of life appreciation. It made me realise just what my mother went through. I never realised it. It made me sad to think that when I was in hospital by myself, I had to be strong. The days I used to get sad I asked myself if mum went through it, and I guess she did. I’m sad I didn’t realise it back then. It’s made me look at things

differently.” The only treatment Dana undergoes today is the Immunoglobulin. “I have this treatment once a month to keep my immune system up. I am still aware of hygeine and follow strict routines to keep me from catching bugs,” she said. Dana says the message for everybody who has a loved one who is sick, is to make time for them, “even if it is just to have a yarn”. Dana also says it is very important to take notice of family history, especially when there is a serious illness. “I tell my family to get checked all the time - no matter if they feel good now, it could affect them later,” Dana offered. Today, Dana says

she feels almost back to normal [as much as she can get]. “I’ll never be completely well. The transplant is just another form of treatment. A lot of people think that the transplant is the end. It’s better than dialysis, but I’ll never be completely healthy,” Dana said. “I was angry for a long time. Illness puts a stop to a lot of things, but now we can move forward. I feel life is worth living again, that I’m a valuable part of the community again and that I’ve learnt so much from this experience, this journey. “I have much to live for and much to share with my mob.”

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Dana's happy with her new life  

I was angry for a long time. Illness puts a stop to a lot of things, but now we can move forward. I feel life is worth living again, that I’...