In ancient Egypt, they removed all organs from a mummified body save for the heart—and the kidneys.
It seems that 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. In fact, ancient drawings depict kidneys like the scales of justice.
So it seems cruelly unjust, today, that renal failure is the 8th leading cause of death in America. The big problem is that it’s a “silent killer,” often asymptomatic, thus early screening is crucial. Chronic kidney disease costs society too (think long-term dialysis) and there is a serious shortage of nephrologists.
Enter the Amherst College chapter of the Kidney Disease Screening Awareness Program (KDSAP). On Saturday, March 31, it held a walk-in screening event at the Unitarian Universalist Society in downtown Amherst.
Sporting neon orange KDSAP T-shirts, Sam Amaka ’19 and Cornell Brooks ’19 stood on North Pleasant Street by the big clapboard building, 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 to answer any questions, and you get a free bus pass too.”
In the basement, full of inspirational posters for Unitarians and toys for its preschool class, the Amherst students sat in pairs at five stations marked by signs in English and Spanish: 1) Registration; 2) Body Measurements; 3) Blood Glucose; 4) Blood Pressure; 5) Urinalysis.
A week earlier, a nurse had trained them in the requisite medical skills: how to prick a finger to test for blood glucose levels, how to measure body mass and how to analyze urine samples.
For four hours, visitors trickled in, with 25 students serving between two shifts. I shadowed Olwen Williams, 52, who takes pride in tending her health, insisting that she eats baked chicken, plenty of 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.”
At the BMI station, Jason Seto ’19 politely asked Williams to remove her shoes and hop on the scale, then lean against a height chart. Next, like an intent tailor, Seto wrapped the measuring tape around her waist and hips. He fed the numbers to Bina Aaron ’20, who plotted them on a BMI assessment chart.
At the Blood Glucose station, Emily Ma ’20 looked up from her book on the civil rights activist Ella Baker, and smiled with recognition as Williams drew near. They’d met before, while volunteering together at the advocacy group Amherst Community Connections. Ma pulled on bright blue latex gloves, swabbed Williams’s finger and pricked it with a lancing device. When the glucose levels read low, Ma asked Williams what she 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’s blood pressure was taken, Bree Barnes ’20 placed a dipstick into a urine sample and a diagnostic machine scrutinized it for telltale traces of blood, or certain protein or pH levels, which can signal kidney dysfunction.
KDSAP, which started at Harvard in 2008, is a student-run organization that teams with doctors and community members to offer free screenings to underserved populations. There are 16 chapters at colleges and universities now, and the Amherst one was founded in 2015 by Niyi Odewade ’17 and Beselot Birhanu ’17.
At least one of today’s students—Caroline Yao ’19—is considering becoming a nephrologist. If she dives into the scientific literature, she’ll find that the malady has a long history: by analyzing the kidneys in those Egyptian mummies, modern scientists found that kidney disease was not uncommon then either.
At the last stop that day, Williams met privately with Dr. Andrew Balder ’75, an internist in nearby Springfield. With wooden blocks and tiny firefighter helmets endearingly stacked behind him, Dr. Balder discussed “the full metabolic package,” of her data collected by the students, and asked about her family medical history.
On my way out, Lynn Kao ’20, who has studied inequities in health care, explained why she gave up a sunny Saturday afternoon to be here: “What attracted me is that you can go off campus—and feel you are able to help someone.”