Amherst students staffed a walk-in kidney disease screening on a Saturday this spring.

In ancient Egypt, they removed all the organs from a mummified body save for the heart—and the kidneys.

Kidneys were held in high esteem: they were a symbol of fairness since they lie symmetrically on either side of the spine and are equal in size. Ancient drawings depict kidneys like the scales of justice.

So it seems unjust, today, that renal failure is the eighth leading cause of death in the United States. The big problem is that it’s often asymptomatic; thus, early screening is crucial. Chronic kidney disease costs society too (think of the expense of dialysis), and there is a serious shortage of nephrologists.

Enter the Amherst College chapter of the Kidney Disease Screening Awareness Program. On a Saturday this spring, it held a walk-in screening at the Unitarian Universalist Society in town.

Sam Amaka ’19 and Cornell Brooks ’19 stood on North Pleasant Street, smiling and trying to rope in passersby. “I tell them it’s an opportunity you don’t often get,” said Brooks, who, like many students here today, is pre-med: “It’s free, there’s a doctor on site, and you get a free bus pass too.”

In the basement, full of inspirational posters for Unitarians and toys for preschoolers, the students sat at stations: 1) Registration; 2) Body Measurements; 3) Blood Glucose; 4) Blood Pressure; 5) Urinalysis. A nurse had trained them in how to prick a finger, measure body mass and analyze urine.

I shadowed Olwen Williams, 52, who takes pride in tending her health. She eats baked chicken and greens and could walk “from here to Timbuktu!” When asked why she was here, she laughed: “Better to be safe than sorry! And the students are awesome.”

Amherst students staffed a walk-in kidney disease screening on a Saturday this spring.

At the BMI station, Jason Seto ’19 politely asked Williams to hop on the scale and then lean against a height chart. He fed the numbers to Bina Aaron ’20.

Emily Ma ’20 looked up from her book on civil rights activist Ella Baker and smiled with recognition at Williams. They’d volunteered together for the advocacy group Amherst Community Connections. Ma swabbed and pricked Williams’ finger. When the glucose levels read low, Ma asked Williams what she’d had for breakfast. She’d been in a rush, she said—just a cup of tea. “That’s not enough!” cried Ma, and they both laughed.

After Williams’ blood pressure was taken, Bree Barnes ’20 used a diagnostic machine to scrutinize her urine sample for traces of blood, or certain protein or pH levels, which can signal kidney dysfunction.

The screening program started at Harvard in 2008 and now has 16 chapters. The Amherst one was founded in 2015 by Niyi Odewade ’17 and Beselot Birhanu ’17.

At least one of the students here today—Caroline Yao ’19—is considering becoming a nephrologist. If she dives into the scientific literature, she’ll find that kidney disease has a long history: by analyzing the kidneys in those Egyptian mummies, modern scientists found that the malady was not uncommon in their era either.

At the last stop in the basement, Williams met privately with Dr. Andrew Balder ’75, a local internist. With tiny firefighter helmets endearingly stacked behind him, Balder discussed with her the data collected by the students.

On my way out, Lynn Kao ’20, who has studied inequities in health care, explained why she gave up a sunny afternoon to be here: “What attracted me is that you can go off campus and feel you are able to help someone.”

Photo credit: Takudzwa Tapfuma ’17