Navigating CKD: Life in the driver’s seat

By Kathy Hoyer, Territory Director, Satellite Healthcare

Whether it’s chauffeuring his wife Claudia around their San Jose hometown, or managing his Chronic Kidney disease, John Unger likes to be in control.

That doesn’t necessarily mean he likes to speed; in fact, he is cautious and thoughtful about both. But it’s clear that the 74-year-old isn’t letting health limitations slow him down.

That goes for behind the wheel or on foot. Unger has made it a hobby to participate in National Kidney Foundation fundraising walks almost every year since his diagnosis nearly 20 years ago along with other health awareness walks.

“I don’t even remember the first one I did,” he says of his walks. “It was for a very small organization.” He was accompanied by one of his daughters, Andrea Hensler, adding another aspect to his regimen of good health: He keeps his family involved.

Unger has been on dialysis at Satellite Healthcare since 2015. But even that hasn’t keep him from his beloved walks.

“Last year my nurse made me bring a wheelchair, and she walked with me,” Unger says. “I ended up pushing the wheelchair the whole time.”

Satellite at the Kidney Walk

John Unger, Kathy Hoyer and Gilda Jones, along with other team member from Satellite, at last year’s San Jose Kidney Walk

Satellite dialysis nurse and center manager Gilda Jones is Unger’s biggest fan. “He never complains and is a delight to care for,” Jones says.

After Unger was diagnosed with CKD, he put off dialysis as long as he could, controlling his disease with a healthy lifestyle. But back in 2015 it became apparent that he needed dialysis.

“It’s just a part of life,” he says. “I try to stay as positive as I can.”

Jones says that his positive attitude helps in his recovery.

Dialysis has helped, too. “I am much healthier now than I was the year before I started dialysis,” Unger says. “Before I started dialysis I was weak and cold all the time. I knew it was time to take the next step for my health.”

However, he has no plans to take further steps, and has not registered for the national kidney transplant list. “Because I was 72 when I started dialysis, I felt that I should let someone younger get an available kidney.”

It’s a decision he accepts with grace, and his family understands it, especially wife Claudia. Unger says that she is a major positive in his life. A diabetic and neuropathy sufferer, Claudia does not drive, hence Unger’s job of Chief Driving Officer — another reason he has to stay as healthy as possible. Still, he’s the first one to say that Claudia is the sharper of the two, and frequently “wins” in their loving battle of wits.

“She says I better not get Alzheimer’s Disease because quite honestly, she wouldn’t notice,” he jokes.

Another thing that has helped Unger stay positive in his disease is the mentorship of a family friend, Patti Childress, an account supervisor for the Bay Area American Red Cross. “She’s showed me how someone can live a normal life with our disease,” Unger says.

And a normal life means independence, as much as three-day-a-week dialysis provides. That usually means a day-trip, like the one he recently made to Lodi for a meeting of his beloved Freemasons, of which he is a long-time member. “I got in the car around 9 a.m., made it in time for lunch and the meeting, then drove home,” he says. “It was no problem.”

And he is that way about the NKF Kidney Walks he participates in. He says he doesn’t train for them, but in the immortal words of Michael Jordan, “I just do it.” He says he doesn’t walk in the longer distances, but takes on the shorter routes.

The only year he’s bypassed an NKF walk in the past decade was one day when it was 90 degrees outside. “I got there, felt how hot it was, and said, ‘no way!’”

So, assuming the weather behaves, look for Unger this June at the annual San Jose Kidney Walk. He may be pushing a wheelchair, but make no mistake, he’s still in the driver’s seat.