PEMBROKE — A Pembroke man who 21 years ago received a new heart and lungs is hospitalized with end-stage kidney failure and needs a life-saving transplant.
Paul Harris, 47, was hospitalized Wednesday, his mother Sylvia said, his illness resulting from anti-rejection medications that Harris is required to take following a heart and double-lung transplant in 1991, the first ever in North Carolina.
Harris was born with a congenital heart disease that left his heart with one main artery instead of two.
“After so many years, it wore my heart out, pushing that blood out through those small vessels, and also destroyed the vessels in my lungs,” he said during a recent interview, adding that he had suffered from pulmonary hypertension. “They told my mother … I wouldn’t live to be 7 years old because of that, and I’m 47 now.”
Sylvia recalled the complications her son encountered growing up, including physical weakness and “not being able to play as other kids did and do the things that normal children do.”
She said Harris had open heart surgery in high school, and that their family made frequent, monthly trips to UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill from the time Harris was 6 months old.
“I got to the point (before the surgery) where I couldn’t even feed myself. That’s how bad it had gotten,” Harris said.
After the surgery, Harris was placed on a regimen of anti-rejection drugs, which help suppress the immune system’s response to a new organ to keep the body from rejecting it. He later found out that the drugs were damaging his kidneys, and after a year on dialysis, in 1997 he was given a kidney donated his sister Paula, who is a year older than him.
Two years later, the drugs had taken their toll on the donated kidney. Harris was placed on the waiting list and started weekly dialysis treatments that went on for seven years, going to treatments three times a week, about four hours each time. He said the treatments “suck the life out of you.”
“You don’t have a bit of energy,” he said. “I can’t get out and do things like I want to, like my friends do.”
In 2006, a kidney became available from a 15-year-old girl who died in a car accident.
“That’s the hardest part,” Harris said of being on the waiting list for so long, “waiting and knowing that somebody’s got to die for you to live.”
Harris said he must take the anti-rejection medication — about 20 pills per day — every day for the rest of his life. He has not had any dialysis treatments, and said the medications make him more vulnerable to infection.
“When I go on dialysis and get an infection and they can’t control it, it’s gonna automatically take me out,” he said. “If you come in here with a cold, I would have to ask you to step outside because I could catch that. That would put me in the hospital, just a simple cold.”
According to Carolina Donor Services, kidneys are in high demand for donations needed, with 3,102 patients on the United Network for Organ Sharing list in North Carolina and 92,546 on the list nationally. Liver transplants come in second place, with 311 people on the waiting list in North Carolina and 16,140 on the list nationally. Lungs are the least in demand, with 21 needed statewide and about 1,600 needed nationally.
According to Harris, a patient awaiting a heart or lung transplant can be moved up on the list if their condition worsens, but if a kidney transplant patient’s condition worsens, they remain in the same spot.
Anyone wishing to learn more about kidney donation or to get information on becoming a potential donor should contact Michael James, kidney transplant nurse coordinator at the UNC Transplant Clinic, at 919-966-3079.
Until that beeper goes off signaling an available kidney, Harris said he tries to stay busy. He and his brother Frankie work together to create American Indian artwork, and if he’s feeling up to it, Harris said he likes to ride his Harley Davidson.
“It’s a feeling of total freedom,” he said of riding the bike. “You wouldn’t believe the stress that is lifted off of me, like somebody just sucks it away.”
Since first becoming ill in 1991, Harris has also stayed busy with his education, first getting bachelor degrees in Science and Social Work and starting on his master’s in Counseling, which he hasn’t finished. Before he fell ill, Harris worked as a case manager for Southeastern Regional Mental Health and with a private agency.
“You just gotta stay busy,” he said. “You just gotta set one goal after another. Once I accomplish one goal, I go after another.”
Harris’ mother said something more special has motivated him since his transplant in 1991.
“His goal from the first transplant was to see his daughter start kindergarten,” Sylvia said, adding that his daughter recently graduated college and now works at LabCorp in Lumberton. “He has been able to see all those goals, and she has finished college. I think that’s what keeps him going.”