Medication Can Be Bitter Pill : Former UCLA and Seahawk Star Kenny Easley Says That the Agony Since Kidney Transplant Has Given Him a New Perspective on Life.
These are the agonizing days Kenny Easley had hoped would never come.
“You wake up hurting, you go through the day hurting, you go to bed hurting and you wake up the next morning and you’re still hurting,” he said. “It seems like it never goes away. It gets to be very disheartening and very frustrating.”
His suffering is the result of a June 8 kidney transplant in Seattle, where for seven years Easley was an outstanding safety for the Seahawks.
Two months later, he has defied the experts by attending the Busch-Kenny Easley Golf and Fishing Derby in Anchorage, Alaska, this weekend. Reached in Anchorage, Easley said he was speaking publicly for the first time since 1986.
“In (the book of) Galatians, they talk about long suffering,” Easley said. “I think each one of us in our life has to go through a point of long suffering in order to appreciate fully the gifts that we were given.
“I think this is that period of my life (and now) I understand fully and completely the gifts and opportunities that I have been afforded in my life.”
There have been many. Easley, 31, was an All-American at UCLA and was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Seahawks in 1981. He was a fixture in the Seahawk defense through the 1987 season. He was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and was once voted NFL defensive player of the year.
But after three seasons of nagging injuries, he was traded to the Phoenix Cardinals in 1988 for rookie quarterback Kelly Stouffer. During a routine medical examination, Phoenix doctors discovered Easley’s irreversible kidney damage, which effectively ended his football career.
When the kidneys have deteriorated to about 5% to 10% of their normal capabilities, they are malfunctioning, specialists say. Either kidney dialysis, on a machine that filters the blood, or a transplant becomes necessary. Without either, the patient will die.
Easley used a kidney dialysis machine for more than a year until he could find a suitable donor for a transplant.
The trauma led Easley to file suit last year against six: three doctors who treated him from 1986 to ‘87; the Seahawks’ trainer; a drug company that distributes the painkiller Advil, and the Seahawks.
Because the suit is not scheduled to be tried until 1991, Easley declined to discuss the litigation.
He does not have the stamina to worry about the case anyway--it seems so far in the future. His life is strictly present tense.
“The big thing for me right now is to regain my health,” Easley said. “I cannot be an asset to anyone in my present condition because I’m constantly in and out of the clinic. It takes such a long time for the kidney to adjust itself to you, you to it. Even then, I could be five or 10 years down the road and the kidney could reject and fail. You are constantly in reminder that you are not in control of your own destiny.”
Still, Dr. Rick Johnson of the University of Washington Medical Center marvels at his patient’s recuperative powers. He said Easley is doing fairly well since the operation and has had no traces of rejection.
“He’s been able to deal with it in an incredible way,” Johnson said.
Easley attributes his mental stability to his upbringing and training as a high-caliber athlete.
“Athletics has been an integral part of my life and development,” Easley said. “It is just something now at this stage in my life that has been taken away. It is not as mentally tough, because I had the opportunity to do it. There are millions and millions of kids around the country who would love to have the life Ken Easley once lived and the things he once did.”
But no doubt the past two years have been a strain on Easley, his wife, Gail, and their two children.
Easley said his 3-year-old son, Kendrick, is starting to understand the circumstance. The first thing he asks when Easley leaves the house in the morning is, “Daddy, are you going to the doctor today?”
Easley took Kendrick to Alaska for the celebrity golf tournament. They ate breakfast and dinner together. Kendrick played in meeting rooms while Easley went over the final touches with tournament organizers.
“I make sure to spend quality time with Kendrick because it is very important for him to know that Daddy is going to be all right,” Easley said of his first break from the treatment routine since his operation. “This has been a tremendous chance for him and I to renew our acquaintance.”
Easley has left child-rearing at his Issaquah, Wash., home to Gail, whom he calls a beacon during these trying times. The Easleys also have a 9-month-old.
Although doctors believe the transplant is taking hold, Easley said complications arise daily, making parenting difficult.
“I take blood tests every day, so I’m at the clinic at least once a day,” he said. “It doesn’t take very much to go to the clinic and be a resident there. (There are) so many different lab values, so many different things they look at to determine how the kidney is functioning, how the rest of the body is functioning.”
As with every kidney transplant patient, Easley is closely monitored for the effects of the immunosuppressant drugs. He must take high doses to stop the immune system from rejecting the new kidney.
The biggest danger of taking immunosuppressants lies in the increased susceptibility to all types of viruses and diseases that can be contracted when the body’s immune system is altered. “So, there is just so much, besides looking at the kidney and the function of the kidney and how it is doing,” Easley said. “They have to be cognizant of what is going on inside my body in terms of infection, viruses, bacteria. It is just so much stuff.”
Although Easley says he has no regrets, the pain is a constant reminder that his once-strong, 6-foot-3, 203-pound body can no longer stand the punishment of football. Or any physical contact, for that matter.
Easley said he is often fatigued. His strength is about 25% to 35% of what it was during his playing days at UCLA.
Easley’s only comfort is in the fact that the pain should subside within a year. Johnson said Easley could regain his health to the point where he can be physically active.
Easley said he will make time for golf. Although he has not played since his surgery, he was shooting in the 70s while on dialysis.
Contact sports would be more dangerous. The transplanted kidney is located closer to the pelvis, Johnson said. It is not as protected as normal organs.
Easley said he would not consider playing football again: “No, no, my football career is over.”
The days of agony might be ending as well.
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