A green rubber “Donate Life” bracelet rests on John Myers’ left wrist, just below the bulging section of his forearm where needles used to pierce him during dialysis. Protruding from under his skin, the bulge is an arteriovenous fistula, a surgically fused artery and vein placed there to allow a sufficient flow of blood to and from the dialysis machine. He’ll have the fistula for the rest of his life, a constant reminder of how perilously close he came to dying.
When Myers began doing dialysis at home about six months after his kidneys failed suddenly and inexplicably, it sometimes took him a half hour to properly insert a needle into his “super vein,” as he calls it. If it hurt too much, he knew he wasn’t doing it right. He’d do two days of dialysis, then take a day off. Sitting on the couch in the Rockville house where he and his wife, Julya, raised their three children, he’d nap or watch movies for three hours while a machine performed the blood-cleansing function his kidneys no longer could. Unless he received a transplant, this would be his lifelong sentence. Without a new kidney, he relied on dialysis to live.
“Why this happened to me is something I can’t answer,” Myers, 58, says one evening this February while sitting at a table at Gaithersburg’s Amazing Art Studio, which Julya owns.
He’s speaking both of his mysterious illness and its spirit-lifting, albeit slow-to-unfold, postscript. His story, which is really their story, is a testament to both the wonders of modern medicine and the power of community. John isn’t an artist, but he’s worked with Julya since she got into the business in 2000 (she had a Rockville location before opening the studio in Downtown Crown), so he’s a member of a tight-knit group of studio owners and suppliers that rallied around the couple when he got sick.
“I’ve always been one to go out of my way to help people,” John says. “I can change a tire, I can help you move, but a kidney…”
“How do you say thank you?” Julya interjects. She often finishes his sentences or dishes out a good-natured dig while he’s talking.
More than three years after Myers received the gift that restored a normal life, the two are still a bit shocked by how it all happened. The woman who offered to donate one of her kidneys was only an acquaintance. Sometimes John struggles to find the right words to describe his emotions, a problem his wife doesn’t seem to have.
“If you ever wondered if people cared about you or loved you, we don’t have that question anymore,” she says. “Yeah, they cared.”
Myers wasn’t feeling great when he took his year-old granddaughter trick-or-treating on Halloween in 2014, but he didn’t think it was anything serious. He’d vomited, but he didn’t have a fever and he wasn’t achy. Three days later, when he couldn’t shake what he and Julya thought was just a nasty bug, she encouraged him—strongly—to get checked out. His doctor was able to squeeze him in right before closing at 4:30. She ran some blood tests and prescribed anti-nausea medication.
The next morning, Julya was driving John to the Gaithersburg studio, which she’d opened just a few months earlier, when he received a call from the physician.
“You need to go to the hospital, they’re going to check you in. Your kidneys are failing,” he remembers her telling him.
For a healthy guy whose only previous medical scare occurred when he had his appendix removed as a child, the call was unnerving. Still, Myers was determined not to jump to any dire conclusions. He insisted on stopping by the studio to unload a kiln before going to Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville. When he got to the hospital, he quickly learned how bad things were.
“They said, ‘Your kidneys aren’t failing—they’ve failed,’ ” Julya recalls. “If we would have waited another 24 hours, my whole life story would have been different because he wouldn’t have been here. We were that close to him not surviving. So we were thankful, not crushed.”
Doctors couldn’t pinpoint the cause of John’s kidney disease—he’d been given a clean bill of health at a checkup the previous year—though they theorized it might have stemmed from a virus. They feared he could fall into a coma at any time, so they inserted a port into his jugular and began dialysis that night at the hospital. “The vascular surgeon was playing ‘Hotel California,’ ” he recalls. “I said, ‘Dude, you’re ruining this song for me for the rest of my life.’ ”
Myers remained hospitalized for 10 days, during which he was in a “fog.” When he finally was released, his life—and Julya’s—were drastically different. The next morning, he went to a DaVita dialysis center in Rockville, near the hospital. “The first day you look around and say, ‘Wow, these are my peeps now,’ ” he says. “Then when you walk out, you think, ‘I don’t know how people do this.’ ”