GREENVILLE — Family, friends and caregivers say they understand what a person goes through when receiving painful, but life-saving medical treatment, but they rarely do.
When Arlette Whitaker tells her patients at Fresenius Medical Care ECU Dialysis that she knows what they are going through, she really does.
Whitaker, 40, has been undergoing daily dialysis since her kidneys failed in 2007.
"I am the type of person, who if I can say one word and it makes a difference, I will do it," Whitaker said. "The nurses here are awesome, but they don't know how it feels to be in dialysis."
While the treatment allows her to work and care for her husband and teenaged children, Whitaker is one of 383 people registered with Vidant Medical Center Transplant Service and waiting for a kidney transplant.
Seventy-nine percent of the patients are minorities, like Whitaker, which means there are fewer donors available to help.
No one in Whitaker's family is a suitable match, so she is waiting for a donation. Whitaker said she hopes her story encourages people to explore organ donation.
North Carolina Data shows that blacks make up nearly 21 percent of the state's licensed drivers but are only 13.6 percent of donors who register through the Division of Motor Vehicles, according to data collected by Donate Life N.C. Whites make up 66 percent of the state's licensed drivers but are 80 percent of registered donors.
While it's possible to get a match from a donor of another race, transplant success rates increase when the match is between people of the same race or ethnic background.
Whitaker's kidneys stopped functioning because of treatment she received for bone cancer when she was 10 years old.
A special diet and separate medical regimen eventually restored kidney function and her teens and 20s were relatively normal, including marriage and children.
Her kidneys remained stable through her pregnancies.
"I knew I probably shouldn't have children, but it was always a goal. I wanted to be a mother," she said.
Her son, Byron, is 19 and her daughter, Zaria, is 13.
Then Whitaker was diagnosed with breast cancer when Zaria was a few months old and underwent chemotherapy one more time.
In 2007, she started nursing school, fulfilling a childhood dream.
"When I was growing up, I had bone cancer as a child, and my nurses were just wonderful, and it made me want to be in the health care field," she said.
Soon after, she was told she would have to start dialysis.
She opted for peritoneal dialysis, which uses the lining of the abdominal cavity to filter toxins using a fluid that is pumped in and later drained.
It's a daily treatment that is done while she sleeps, placing fewer restrictions on her diet and fluid intake.
The treatment let her stay in school and care for her family. It also guided her decision about the type of nursing she wanted to pursue.
"After I graduated the position (at Fresenius) came open so I decided to try it. I thought I would be good at it because I know what the patients are going through," she said.
Often people diagnosed with kidney disease initially refuse dialysis because they think their life has ended.
"I try to keep my nurse's hat on, but sometimes they don't need that," she said. "Sometimes they need a patient talking to a patient."
She reminds her patients that everyone reacts differently to dialysis, and while she continues to work, others find it impossible.
Whitaker reminds people that they usually can find some part of the former life that they can maintain.
"I had a patient that travel meant so much to," she said. "I asked them why they thought they couldn't travel. I looked for a way they could travel."
Whitaker said lack of knowledge is the biggest barrier to organ donation. Some people worry doctors will not fully treat them if they think they can harvest an organ. That's not true.
Registering to be a organ donor can be done when renewing driver's license or by visiting donatelifenc.org.
Registering to be an organ donor takes the burden of the decision off of family members, Whitaker said.
"The passing of a love done is enough to deal with," she said. "That's why I think people need to make that decision for themselves when they are alive."
For now, Whitaker is focused on keeping herself healthy. She is near the top of the transplant waiting list and hopes to receive the call by year's end.
Whitaker said she wants people suffering from kidney failure to realize there is hope.
"I want people to know anything is possible," she said. "You feel like you are given an impossible situation but you can get your focus back and make it possible."