Mandy Ratz was 16 years old when she noticed something was wrong. “I was exhausted, my ankles were sore, I had an odd rash on my legs—and I’d gained 15 pounds in a single week,” she says. “But I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t want to miss the Valentine’s Day dance.” During a routine sports physical the day after the dance, the nurse took Ratz’s blood pressure and asked, with a strange look on her face, if it tended to run high.
“Next thing I knew, I was at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that was attacking my kidneys,” Ratz recalls. Overnight, the carefree, soccer-playing teen turned into an invalid, undergoing rounds of steroid treatment and chemotherapy. When her failing kidneys could no longer remove fluid and toxins from her body, she began dialysis, a procedure that cleanses the blood. “But long-term dialysis deteriorates health, often leading to heart disease and death, so it’s a temporary solution at best,” she notes. At 18, thanks to a kidney donated by her older brother, Matt, she underwent a successful transplant. “I promised myself then and there to better the lives of others affected with kidney disease,” she says.
Today Ratz, 27, is a nurse—and one of the American Kidney Foundation’s most dedicated volunteers. At the recent 2010 St. Louis Kidney Walk, she raised nearly $8,000 for the organization. “It’s not just about the money, though—I also try to raise awareness about the importance of organ donation,” Ratz says. “Matt’s kidney gave me a second chance at life. I try to do the same for others.”
Ten years ago, there were 60,000 individuals on the kidney transplant waiting list, with nine of them dying per day for lack of donor organs. “But due to the increase in diabetes and high blood pressure, the two leading causes of chronic kidney disease, there has been a rapid increase in organ failure—however, the number of donors hasn’t gone up,” Ratz says. “Now there are more than 100,000 people on the list. One is added every 10 minutes, and 19 die each day waiting for a kidney.”
Ratz hopes to change those statistics. “If my brother hadn’t been a perfect match, I might not have lived,” she says. “So I urge everyone to become an organ donor. Sign the back of your driver’s license or fill out a donor card. Most important, share your decision with your family. Together, we can help save lives.” She also works to raise awareness about early detection and treatment of CKD. “As many as one in nine people are living with CKD, but don’t know it,” she says. “Most signs and symptoms go unnoticed as the kidneys work harder and harder to compensate for the damage.” Symptoms such as extreme fatigue and high blood pressure often don’t occur until it’s too late. “But if you catch it in time, it’s treatable,” she says.
Ratz missed almost two years of high school because of her illness, but kept up with her homework and graduated with her class. Despite continuing health problems caused by her autoimmune disease, she remains energetic and determined. “Everyone faces challenges in life,” she says. “Instead of asking ‘why me,’ I used my challenges to shape my future. I owe my life to my brother’s generosity; now I want to pay his good deed forward. Besides, helping others in need is the best medicine of all.”