Anita Smith was born in Northwest Denver. Rare complications from a cancer diagnosis and lifesaving treatment led to kidney failure in 2003. After a decade of chronic illness, and enormous support from her family and the Denver medical community, she received her transplant in 2013.
My story begins with a circle of brilliant, compassionate, curious medical professionals surrounding a very stubborn zebra. I have heard that young doctors, when they’re training to diagnose patients are often told “when you hear hoof beats, it’s probably a horse, not a zebra” – meaning that the most common diagnosis is likely the correct diagnosis – but through the course of my illnesses, I have proven to be a zebra over and over again.
My kidneys started to fail as a result of a rare chemotherapy complication. I was diagnosed with a nasty cancer at the age of 49. It was caught at a late stage, so my survival chances were not great. Doctors pursued a very aggressive radiation and chemo drug regimen, which had the wonderful benefit, if it worked, of keeping me on the green side of the grass. Luckily, over the course of seven months of treatment, the cancer responded and I looked forward to watching my three daughters finish high school and begin college. I could begin to hope to attend some graduations, maybe even see them launch into their adult lives.
About four months after chemotherapy treatments ended, I began to feel fatigued. Not tired. Fatigued. It was when I began showing odd symptoms that my oldest daughter insisted I go to the cancer center, where I was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder. And before I knew it I was in kidney failure. I went from a recovering cancer survivor to a person on the edge of death.
I was immediately admitted to Presbyterian/St. Lukes’s on July 23rd for what we thought would be a short stay. I was not released until October 1st. I lived in a pressure controlled, solitary room in the Bone Marrow Unit and my phenomenally supportive husband and teenaged daughters had to be gowned to come and visit me.
My treatment was multi-phased, and I was very fortunate to receive an FDA Compassionate Use Exemption, so I could be treated with an experimental therapy that my resourceful husband had ferreted out, but the pillar of my treatment was kidney dialysis. When they finally released me, it wasn’t because they thought I was cured. It was because they had done everything they could for me.
My kidneys failed in 2003. I had to wait five years to be sure that my cancer was firmly in remission before I could even get on the transplant list. And then began the wait. As my health continued to deteriorate, my family had to make more and more accommodations to include me in everyday life. But on May 1, 2013 I got the greatly anticipated phone call and received my life-changing kidney transplant on May the 2nd. By lucky coincidence, all my children who live very far away had gathered in Denver to celebrate my sixtieth birthday – and instead we ended up celebrating a brand new lease on life.
I am so humbled and grateful to the generous individual and family members who made these healthy additional years possible for me, and I work every day to be take good care of my body and be as kind to everyone as I can, to be worthy of this spectacular gift.