Courage to give life


It took two years, thousands of miles of travel and an alignment of stars, but local musical powerhouse Wain McFarlane finally got what he was waiting for: a kidney.

McFarlane is recovering at Methodist Hospital in Rochester after getting the organ from his niece Yai Tieh, who also came through surgery just fine on Feb. 26 and is resting at home.

“I’m truly excited about the kidney,” a tired but grateful McFarlane, 55, said in a phone interview from his hospital bed. “The first two days, I was 10 to 15 years younger, it seemed.”

A stealthy killer

African Americans are at special risk for kidney failure, which occurs when the organs’ ability to remove and regulate water and flush toxins from the body is seriously damaged. Kidney disease can be treated effectively if detected early, but it often shows no symptoms until it is too late and the patient requires a transplant to ward off death. In a patient, both organs usually fail simultaneously, but a healthy donor can function with one kidney. Family members, such as Wain McFarlane’s niece, are usually a better match than strangers or cadavers.

African Americans and Kidney Disease
• African Americans are nearly 4 times more likely to develop kidney failure than whites.
• African Americans account for 32 percent of people with kidney failure, though they make up 12 percent of the U.S. population.
• African American men ages 20 to 29 are 10 times more likely to develop kidney failure because of high blood pressure than white men of the same age. For African American men ages 30 to 39, the risk jumps to 14 times that for whites in that age group.

• Difficulty urinating or a burning sensation when doing so
• Frequent urination
• Blood in the urine
• Puffiness around the eyes and swelling in the hands and feet
• Pain in the small of the back, just below the ribs
• High blood pressure

Avoiding it
• The most common causes of kidney disease are diabetes and high blood pressure. People can try to avoid kidney disease by watching their diets, making regular visits to a doctor and monitoring their blood pressure.

SOURCES: National Kidney Disease Education Program, HealthScout

The front man for the family reggae group Ipso Facto — a musical sensation in the ’80s — had been enduring regular trips from the home he shares in northeast Minneapolis with his partner, Catherine Jensen, to the Mayo Clinic for dialysis. His kidneys were functioning at only a small fraction of their capacity after years of hypertension.

Kidney disease — all too common among African Americans, especially men — is exhausting and devastating to the best of people. It was especially debilitating for McFarlane, who lacks health insurance and is known for his enthusiasm and boisterousness as much as for his music. He has toured to far-flung locales with Ipso Facto, Tracy Chapman, the Wailers and others, and in 2001 released an acclaimed solo album.

Further success looked out of reach until McFarlane was cured; his condition sapped his energy and robbed him of his ability to work — and make money. And he was unable to find or afford satisfactory care in the Twin Cities.

The puzzle pieces eventually fell together with a few strokes of good luck. His brother Micah, a former tour manager for Cyndi Lauper, arranged to have the songstress headline a benefit concert a year ago at Myth Nightclub in Maplewood that also featured Soul Asylum, Mint Condition and Lifehouse. Proceeds went to pay for medical bills McFarlane had accumulated, as well as some future expenses.

In another twist of fate, McFarlane was relaxing at a club last year near a resort operated by friends in northern Minnesota when he met a couple and, characteristically and gregariously, befriended them. One of them turned out to be Lisa Gander, a director of the Gift of Life Transplant House, a nonprofit in Rochester that gives transplant patients and their families a home-like environment in which to convalesce or stay.

Gander made some calls, and a few days later McFarlane was contacted by a Rochester doctor telling him to drive downstate for tests.

A few months later, McFarlane has a new lease on life. Though he is experiencing complications not unusual after a kidney transplant, his infectious laugh is back as strong than ever, continuing to invigorate him and those around him. Ipso Facto even hopes to reunite for a concert this summer.

Gander — who put up McFarlane at her Rochester home during his dialysis visits, gave his relatives a place to stay during his surgery and recovery, and will care for the patient after his release — is impressed by his “phenomenal” attitude, describing his approach to his condition as ” ‘Throw anything at me; I’m willing to go through it to get to the end result.’ “

Patricia Weaver, McFarlane’s sister and the mother of 26-year-old Tieh, reports that the donor is back at home in the Twin Cities and experiencing just the normal discomfort — but also the comfort of knowing that after some soul searching, she helped save a life.

“She asked me, ‘Mom, what should I do?’, and I said, ‘This is a decision only you can make,’ ” said Weaver, director of content & production for Insight News and also a sister of Al McFarlane, owner & editor-in-chief of the newspaper. “And this is what she wanted to do. She wanted to give that gift to her uncle.”

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Jeff McMillan is a writer and editor in New York.