Dialysis Clinics Save Lives

The dialysis clinic had just opened in Guayaquil, Ecuador, when Juan Carlos was wheeled in, clinging to life, his body bloated. Juan’s mother, learning of the possibility of saving her son’s life, “sold everything they owned, sold the chickens for bus fare” to get Juan to the clinic for help, says Ginny Mello, executive director of Bridge of Life, which is a charitable arm of Davita, a dialysis provider in the US. Until that day, Juan had felt he didn’t want to go on living, didn’t want to burden his family with expensive dialysis treatment from a private hospital. Within days of receiving the dialysis that saved his life, Juan Carlos said that he now wants to be a doctor.

The nonprofit clinic in Ecuador was the first of several Bridge of Life to open in developing countries where kidney disease means certain death for those who cannot afford the expensive, ongoing treatment. Mello, who was a full-time Davita employee, and her husband, who is the company’s chief operating officer, founded Bridge of Life to share their knowledge and passion, to “take what we know that works here and transplant it to a place where it doesn’t exist” in developing countries, says Mello. Davita donates equipment, expertise and employee hours to get the clinics up and running, which takes about a year.

Our kidneys filter excess water and waste from our blood and make urine. The two leading causes of kidney disease, diabetes and high blood pressure, can damage the blood vessels, causing kidneys to shut down. In developing countries, another risk factor for kidney disease is lack of knowledge, as a result of which poor people become very sick before seeking care. In addition, lack of understanding of the disease among medical professionals decreases the number of patients who are properly diagnosed and treated in its early stages. Instances of kidney disease are not well-tracked in developing countries, but are believed to be much higher than in the US, where millions are affected by it, according to The National Kidney Disease Education Program.

For Bridge of Life, choosing a partner in an underserved area of the globe is the first hurdle. Since Bridge of Life doesn’t operate the clinics, the in-country partner, maybe a small hospital, must be able to financially sustain the dialysis clinic, be geographically accessible, and be able to offer nurse and physician expertise. Once a partner is identified, Bridge of Life helps to build the clinic, bringing in nephrologists, nurses and technicians who donate their vacation time to train local staff in operation and maintenance of the machines. Bridge of Life staff and volunteers return for a clinic review every six months for three years, and clinics are expected to be self-sufficient thereafter.

Water used in dialysis must be cleaner than US tap water. Another challenge is identifying a location with an abundant water supply sufficient to run the dialysis machines, and a local supplier of parts for the water filtration system. Bridge of Life is overcoming these challenges and more, one clinic at a time, at clinics in Cameron, India, Ecuador, Guatemala and the Philippines. “We are saving hundreds, not thousands, of lives,” says Mello, who admits there aren’t enough dialysis chairs in the world for all the people who need them. But she remains passionate about her mission to help as many people like Juan Carlos as possible. “Who knows what he will do with his life? He may touch another one hundred or a thousand lives.”

Bridge of Life

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