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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

How Willie Stein Keeps His Smile

Wille Stein Photo/Scott Areman

By Steve Winter

Willie Stein makes it a point to embrace and enjoy life even when faced with healthcare challenges that require him to undergo kidney dialysis three times a week.

“Some days you feel like giving up, but you want to live, and once you get past being mad, you get to fight back mode,” he said.

March is National Kidney Month, a time to educate the public about kidney disease, which affects more than one in nine American adults. Kidney disease is even harder on people of color. Blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians are at high risk for developing kidney failure, due in part to high rates of diabetes and high blood pressure in these communities. Black individuals are almost four times as likely as their White counterparts to develop kidney failure. While Blacks make up about 13 percent of the population, they account for 35 percent of the people with kidney failure in the United States.

Stein is working hard to beat the odds, even as he relies on dialysis machines to cleanse the waste and water from his blood, replacing the work of his failed kidneys. His sense of resilience is one reason why he is so appreciated around Northwest Kidney Centers’ Burien clinic. He brings light-heartedness and a sense of community to the environment. About his fellow patients who he dialyzes alongside, he said, “I know everyone and help everyone. The staff is just like family.”

The West Seattle resident often delivers fresh fruit and vegetables to other dialysis patients and staff. He and his wife Patty have family and grandkids in Sunnyside east of the Cascades, so when they visit them, they take orders for produce from Eastern Washington – asparagus, peaches or whatever else is in-season.

Stein is also a serious sports fan, especially of the hometown teams. He often dons a Seattle sports outfit along with a smile. He and his wife have season tickets to the Seahawks, Sounders and Kraken. While they love the games, they have so many tickets that they generously share them with others.

“When we’ve been blessed; we want to bless those that bless us,” he said.

Originally from Michigan, Stein enlisted in the army and was stationed in Korea after basic training. After Korea, he was stationed at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis McChord) in Tacoma and quickly fell in love with the area. He ended his military career after some time in Germany and settled in the Pacific Northwest.

Stein followed his military training into a career in transportation. He can offer alternate routes to just about anywhere in the area since he drove for decades. At 47, he’d had enough of the transportation industry and decided to go back to school to learn about composite and wing manufacturing. Soon thereafter, he began a second career at Boeing.

A few years ago Stein got sick with a respiratory infection. Routine bloodwork during a doctor’s visit identified that he was in stage four kidney failure. He began paying attention to the fatigue he felt constantly; even walking a few blocks would exhaust him. His legs were often swollen. He decided it was time to see the kidney doctor.

He met with a nephrologist and was referred to Northwest Kidney Centers’ Next Step classes that focus on chronic kidney disease and learned that a healthy diet and regular exercise can slow and sometimes even stave off kidney disease.

“You do what they tell you,” Stein said. “When someone tells you what you need to do to live longer…Patty and I listened. You need to be motivated to live. A lot of things you can do yourself to be healthier. Eat right and exercise.”

Following that advice, he was able to sustain his kidney health for a time, but not long after he began working with composites and wing production at Boeing, his kidney function dropped to the point where dialysis became necessary.

With help from his “care partner” Patty, he dialyzed at home for a while, but after a couple of years decided to get dialysis at Northwest Kidney Centers’ Burien clinic. Patty did not mind relinquishing her home-dialysis duties.

Through it all, Stein maintains his smile and his sense of humor. He’s something of a practical joker.

Everyone in the clinic – patients and staff – knows that Stein does not like needles. Somedays you’ll hear him give out a loud “Ow,” well before he is connected to the dialysis machine. Following the outburst will be a gaggle of giggles and chuckles, sometimes followed by a loud “Ow” from others who then burst into laughter.

 “We’re all comfortable with each other,” he said. “It’s good to be around people you trust.”

Now is the time for everyone to take steps to improve their kidney health. Tips include: 

• Following prescribed treatments to control diabetes and/or high blood pressure.

• Eating a kidney-friendly diet (low or no salt). Look here for a kidney-friendly diet and recipes or attend an Eating Well, Living Well class to learn how to eat a kidney-healthy diet. See classes at https://www.nwkidney.org/living-with-kidney-disease/classes/.

• Staying active through exercise that is enjoyable.

• Avoiding overuse of over-the-counter pain medicines or prescription medicines.

Learn more about kidney disease at Nwkidney.org.

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