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When you meet Katja Hansen, 47, from Michigan’s Lenawee County, she appears vibrant and healthy. She leads a very healthy lifestyle despite also managing type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney disease (CKD). Her family physician in Germany, where she grew up, is not sure if she was born with it or if it developed when she was a child. The nephrologist who began caring for her later said that the simplest way to explain it is that her kidneys didn’t develop correctly as she grew.

Even though she had no symptoms, her doctor checked for protein in her urine and monitored her blood pressure. Concerned about the results, he ran an ultrasound, which confirmed that she had kidney damage. He placed her on medication to lower her blood pressure. The kidneys regulate blood pressure so if they are damaged, one result can be high blood pressure.

In 2002, Katja moved to the U.S. with her husband. They have been married for 25 years. She was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease around 2014. She is currently managing her diabetes with medication and lifestyle; for the CKD, she takes medication and is on a renal (kidney-healthy) diet to reduce stress on her kidneys. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with CKD are advised to meet with a dietitian to create a kidney-healthy eating plan that is low in salt and fat and has the right amount and type of protein. “You try to get inventive when you have so many limitations — you have to,” Katja states.

Katja was hospitalized with COVID in January 2021 and her kidney function plummeted. Her nephrologist recommended that Katja contact a kidney transplant center about being put on the kidney transplant waiting list. Being referred to a transplant center “was very overwhelming at the time even though I’ve been dealing with kidney disease for a long time… I know I have been declining but then all of a sudden we’re talking about transplants… I was really looking for anything that could help me deal with it. I wanted to find out more about the disease and transplants.”

“My transplant team mentioned this wonderful program called PATH,” says Katja. PATH (Personal Action Toward Health) is a no-cost program offered by the NKFM that helps people better manage long-term health conditions. Participants learn strategies to deal with pain, fatigue, and difficult emotions.

In Fall 2021, Katja participated virtually in Diabetes PATH and then the Kidney PATH program. The programs’ healthy lifestyle and nutrition messages resonated with her. In Germany, her family ate healthy because her father had diabetes and they knew the importance of a nutritious diet to prevent complications. He is in his 80s now and doing well. “Healthy food can make a difference,” she says, referring to her father’s longevity. “I have always been aware of good nutrition.” Learning to cook in Europe, she cooks with more herbs and spices and less salt.

Speaking about the PATH workshops, she says, “I was so surprised at how good it felt to just talk with other people who have the same disease. That made such a difference for me.”

She especially loved learning how to deal with the mental stress of chronic disease and creating action plans. “I have found that the action plan is very helpful, especially setting mini-goals. It provides a certain amount of accountability, she states. “For problems, the group would brainstorm solutions, and everybody has a different perspective.”

She appreciated that participants were able to vent their frustrations with chronic disease. “Taking the classes and listening to others’ experiences has been very empowering. This actually helped me to live with it easier and feel like I can do this.”

Katja has recovered almost completely from COVID. Her kidney numbers are good so she’s on hold, not actively on the transplant list, but still accruing wait time. While waiting, she refrains from seeking a live kidney donor. Her husband would donate a kidney, but he is her only caregiver, and both their families live far away. “I think every person that needs an organ knows that it’s something very difficult to ask… I feel very uncomfortable asking anybody… It needs to come from them.” She states that if someone planned to donate a kidney regardless, even if they were not a match for her, this would make her feel more comfortable about accepting their offer.

Katja is enjoying her current kidney health, knowing she is not alone, and feeling prepared for the future after her PATH workshops. As the world opens up after the COVID pandemic, she plans to visit Germany in Spring 2022.

For more information on PATH or upcoming workshops go here.