Sound Health: A nonprofit explains how kidney failure affects people of color far more than whites

Rhonda Smith of Bloomington was on a waiting list for a new kidney for seven years. She was in end-stage renal disease. That’s when the kidneys no longer remove waste and excess fluids from your blood. Smith was on home diagnosis for years until she received a kidney transplant in August 2020.

Now that her new kidney gave her a new lease on life, Smith wants to help people understand their kidneys are just as vital as their heart and lungs. Smith’s message is especially directed at African Americans. They are more than three times more likely to suffer from kidney failure than whites, according to data from the United States Renal Data Service.

Rhonda Smith

“When they stop functioning, you are truly at what is called end-stage renal disease and for African Americans, they are at an increased rate of dying before they receive a kidney transplant.”

Smith is an advocate for the central Illinois chapter of The Links Incorporated, an international women’s nonprofit group that aims to sustain the culture and economic survival of African Americans. The Links has launched a health initiative called Black KARE (Kidney Awareness Resources and Education).

In this edition of Sound Health, Smith explains how chronic kidney disease (CKD) can often go undetected until it’s too late.

“The difficulty is with the early stages, one through two (out of five), typically you are not presenting any symptoms that may prompt you to go to a physician,” Smith said, adding that stage 3 is when the common symptoms of fatigue and swelling start to appear.

She said many people don’t look for the warning signs because many aren’t aware of the critical functions that kidneys serve.

The Links promotes healthy living to reduce the risks of diabetes and high blood pressure. Those are key risk factors for kidney disease. Smith said those diseases also widen the disparities of kidney disease among the race because they are more common among people of color.

Smith, who said her kidney failure stemmed from the autoimmune disease lupus, said food deserts and a lack of access to health care also increase Black Americans’ risk for kidney failure.

“When you combine all of those it just compounds on to an increased rate of CKD within the African American community,” Smith said.

Smith also noted people of color are less likely to be identified as a kidney transplant candidate. “That’s difficult and this is why I am passionate about this,” Smith said. “If I can eliminate one person having to go down that path, I would feel so grateful for that because it’s so impactful.”

Smith said it’s difficult to ask someone to donate a kidney. “People don’t know that you can live a very healthy and fulfilling life on one kidney,” Smith said.

The Black KARE initiative promotes healthy living to reduce risk factors of getting kidney disease. That includes healthy eating, an active lifestyle, stress management.

The non-profit recently hosted a free kidney screening at the Boys & Girls Club of Bloomington. Black KARE also has several events planned this month, including a seminar on health healthy cooking.

More information is available on the central Illinois Links website.