To Know Sheryl Glatt and Kidney Disease

I didn’t know Sheryl when she wasn’t sick.

I didn’t know her as a preschool teacher, a mother, a churchgoer or dialysis support group leader. Every time I saw her, she was in a hospital bed, tethered to a dialysis machine or in a wheelchair en route to a doctor’s appointment.

She had lost one leg to amputation, was in danger or losing the other and suffered from advanced kidney disease.

Interviewing and photographing Sheryl Glatt was part of a bigger story the Center produced on dialysis policySenior writer John Gonzales was the lead reporter and I produced a multimedia slideshow and photographs. We approached the story as we do many of the health policy issues we cover. We called potential interview subjects. We researched: We reported.

Sheryl Glatt needed a new pancreas, a new kidney and a new foot. She underwent 16 procedures on her left foot, the last an amputation. Then, she underwent four procedures on her right foot. She died of complications on December 18 at age 51.

"I can walk, and I can talk, and you know I have my sense about me," Glatt told me from her hospital bed back in June. "I have a house and food in the house and good kids and great family. There are people that are far worse off than me. When you think about it that way, it’s not difficult at all."

The woman with manicured nails, bone-thin legs and a seemingly perpetual smile stole my heart. I believed her hope would save her. Despite the staples in her leg, bruises on her arm and open wounds on her foot, she never seemed mortal. I imagined that transplants and a return to “normal life” were just around the bend.

I underestimated her fragility.

As my colleague John Gonzales reported, dialysis patients of Glatt’s age and race have a life expectancy of just under six years. Glatt’s own father died at the age of 47 after undergoing dialysis treatments at home. And, yet, in Sheryl’s presence, I forgot this.

What’s the lesson here? Our particular corner of the reporting world – health and health care policy – is often a grim one. We report on situations with the highest stakes: a dying child, a paralyzed spouse, a woman whose smile and spirit couldn’t, in the end, save her. And this can take its toll, even on a journalist who has seen it before and who will probably see it again.

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