On Your Corner: Community organizer turns to neighbors for kidney

GRANDVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — Three times a week since February, Willie Patterson has lived a cold reality. In a single chair, in a cold sterile room, he watches his blood leave his body.

“Could’ve never imagined it. Just one of those learning experiences where life throws you curve balls and you’re in places and spots that you had never imagined,” Patterson said.

It takes constantly humming dialysis machines four hours to filter his blood, doing the work his kidneys can’t anymore.

Patterson is in stage 5 kidney failure. He got the diagnosis New Year’s Eve after an unexpected trip to the emergency room. 

“It went from a diagnosis of possibility being on dialysis in two years to about two months. In that short time span. So, I’ve been on dialysis from February, right before the pandemic, until now,” he said. “Currently I’m on the waitlist for University of Michigan transplant. So I’ve been on the waitlist since December of 2019 and currently on the waitlist in the Michigan region for a transplant is three to five years.”

His wife Tenae is on a mission: She is determined to find her husband a live donor, a new kidney and a shot at a normal life.

“Eventually, he can die. He can die. That is the worst case,” Tenae Patters said as she looked at her husband. “He doesn’t know but I have had moments where I’ve thought about that and I hurry up and pray them out of my mind because I just don’t believe in my deepest heart that God has brought us to this point and that’s how our story is going to end. I don’t believe that.”

They’ve known each other since they were teens, have been married for 19 years and have two children, ages 22 and 6.

“That’s everything. As a man, as a husband, as a father, you’re a provider and I don’t want to burden my kids with, ‘Oh, Daddy’s sick,’ or ‘Something’s wrong and I need to worry,’” Patterson said. “If my children are going to school, I need to get them to go to school with a clear head and get them to focus on school and not on me.”

That’s the face he wears — and according to his wife, he doesn’t wear it so well.

“I try to make it easy for him, everything easy for him; the doctor’s appointments; trying to get him on as many transplants lists as possible; advocating to try and get as many donors, people to get tested and trying to keep it peaceful for him,” Tenae Patterson said. “He wears a face that everything’s OK, but I know different. I’ve been with him 30 years and I know different.”

She has a plan. She has handed out flyers at churches and made T-shirts and bracelets. At one point, she even had a bumper sticker with the live donor phone number on it and her husband’s name.

It’s hard for Willie Patterson to know where he’d be without his wife.

“I probably would be not addressing the problem. We wouldn’t be here (speaking with News 8),” Patterson said. “The case wouldn’t be pleaded to get people to donate. All the effort comes from her. I am a very internal and private person, so it’s been a struggle for me to be open and talk about it. But learning to talk about it helps. It helps a lot. And through her strength and passion to help me get a transplant, sometimes it’s like, wow. Some of the things we do, I’m like, ‘I wouldn’t do that if it weren’t for you.’ I would probably be in a state of denial.”

Starting to talk about it has not only helped him cope, but he is hoping it will also encourage someone else to take control of their health. 

“I think there is a fear, there is a fear of finding out the worst,” Patterson said. “It’s a fear of finding out something is wrong when you thought everything was OK. So people tend to shy away from that until it’s time to react instead of being proactive.”

The illness is part of Patterson’s story now, one he takes with him to work as the community engagement director for LINC UP, a Grand Rapids nonprofit focused on improving neighborhoods with leadership from the people who live there.

Patterson hopes his journey can reach someone who would have otherwise let their health be a secondary concern.

“But you hear those stories that, you’re young now, it doesn’t mean anything to you now, but it’ll catch up with you later. It’s later,” Patterson said.

Patterson’s family members have looked into becoming a donor, but it didn’t work out. They are now turning to the public in hopes that someone will find it in their heart to start the process of becoming a live donor and be a viable match for Patterson.

“If you want to be a live donor or you consider starting the process, you can contact U of M. The number’s 1.800.333.9013, and tell them that you’re interested in starting the process in being a live donor for Willie Patterson,” Tenae Patterson pleaded. “They’ll take it from there and you can let them know if you want to keep it anonymous.”

Patterson says the process is convenient for the donor. All tests are done locally and the recovery time is much shorter for the donor.

And it would give him the gift of more time: time in his community; time with his family; time away from the dialysis room; more time with his family.

“They make me not just get up and walk out because I’m responsible for other people and I have taken on the responsibility of a family by choice and that’s my obligation,” he said. “It’s no place like home, whether it’s mentally or physically.”