Basketball Star: Rebounding From Kidney Disease
He was one of pro basketball's stars: a spring-legged forward with a knack for soaring skyward and slamming the ball through the hoop.
For 12 seasons, Sean Elliott brought fans to their feet with ballet-like fakes and dazzling spins. He averaged more than 14 points a game, winning All-Star honors in 1993 and 1996 at the height of his career with the San Antonio Spurs.
But his life was about to change.
In 1993, the Texas titan noticed he was tiring more easily. Instead of zipping through the fourth quarter, he labored to get from one end of the court to the other. Within months, the symptoms got worse. His ankles were swelling and he woke up each day with puffy eyes.
Inside Mr. Elliott's body, a life-threatening process was at work. Each kidney has about a million tiny filters (called nephrons) that take waste products out of the blood. But his nephrons were slowly failing. The result was a baffling chronic condition called FSGS (focal segmental glomerulosclerosis) that was poisoning his body.
"I thought my life was perfect," he says, "and then one day I went to see my doctor and he told me I had a rare form of kidney disease. Suddenly, I realized that I'd have to fight a battle to save my athletic career -- maybe even my life."
Sean Elliott soon found he would have to learn about his disease, and then learn how to manage it.
He did. After a "tremendous gift" from his brother Noel -- a kidney -- Mr. Elliott had transplant surgery in 1999. He went on to play pro basketball for parts of two more seasons before he quit to join ESPN in 2001.
"I was extremely lucky," Mr. Elliott says. "Not everybody who gets a kidney transplant will recover fully, as I did. When you have kidney disease, there are no guarantees, period.
"But I worked very hard at taking care of myself after the transplant. I learned how to manage my disease -- by controlling my diet and my weight and my blood pressure -- and by educating myself as much as I possibly could about my condition."
And the future? "Hey, I'm feeling fantastic these days," says Mr. Elliott, 37, who is now a color analyst for Spurs broadcasts. "And I've got my fingers crossed that my good health will continue."
The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) says that more than 26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease and at least 400,000 more are already on dialysis or have had a kidney transplant because their kidneys failed. "If I have a message for them," Mr. Elliott says, "it's simply that educating yourself about kidney disease is often the key to surviving it."
Act on signs of kidney ills
A healthy lifestyle and proper treatment of risk factors like diabetes or high blood pressure can protect against development or progression of kidney disease, experts say.
"Living a healthy lifestyle is always a good idea," says Lawrence B. Holzman, M.D., a kidney researcher at the University of Michigan School of Medicine. "But that's not always sufficient to prevent the onset of many types of kidney disease that we don't yet well understand. Sean Elliott was a world-class athlete with healthy habits who developed kidney disease anyway."
Here are the risk factors for kidney disease:
Family history of any renal disease, but particularly polycystic kidney disease
History of proteinuria or microalbuminuria
History of ureteral valve, chronic urinary tract infection, pyelonephritis or renal injury
History of hydronephrosis, staghorn calculi or chronic renal stones
History of gout
History of ingesting the now-outlawed drug phenacetin, or acetaminophen or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
History of nephritic syndrome
Family or personal history of interstitial nephritis or chronic glomerular disease
The two leading risk factors for kidney failure are diabetes and high blood pressure. Dr. Holzman says controlling them often can prevent or slow kidney disease. "These patients need to consult frequently with their physicians," he says.
The risk for kidney disease also is higher for older adults and for certain ethnic groups. African Americans have four times the risk for kidney failure as Caucasians; African Americans with diabetes have up to six times the risk, compared with Caucasians. Also, African American men between the ages of 20 to 29 are ten times more likely to develop kidney disease secondary to high blood pressure than Caucasian men and 14 times more likely between ages 30 to 39 according to the National Kidney Disease Education Program.
What to watch for
Kidney disease often develops over many years without any easily recognizable signs or symptoms, the NIDDK says. That's why it's especially important to get routine blood and urine tests if you have risk factors for the disease. The tests look for blood or protein in the urine and abnormal levels of creatinine and blood urea nitrogen in the blood.
If signs do develop, you should get prompt medical attention. The following may be warning signs of kidney disease, according to the NIDDK:
Swelling or puffiness around the eyes, face, wrists, abdomen, thighs or ankles
Foamy, bloody or coffee-colored urine
A decrease in the amount of urine
Burning sensation when urinating, or an abnormal discharge during urination
Pain in the mid-back, below the ribs
High blood pressure
Kidney disease is a frequent cause of high blood pressure, and for that reason "the presence of high blood pressure should prompt a check for kidney problems," says Dr. Holzman, scientific chairman for the NephCure Foundation for research into FSGS, the ailment that struck Sean Elliott.