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Life lessons

From student to patient to spring graduate: A first-hand perspective

Part of a special feature celebrating and recognizing the Class of 2020 at Memorial.

By Kristen Walsh

Life has a funny way of teaching us lessons sometimes.

At least, that’s how I like to look at my situation.

Life-altering change

We were always told during pharmacy school how a new health diagnosis can have a huge impact on a person’s life and how they live day-to-day.

They will probably have to start new medications, change their eating habits and exercise more. This doesn’t really seem that life altering to the outside world.

We all take medications from time to time, we all should be trying to eat relatively healthy and exercise regularly.

“I always knew there was a chance I could have polycystic kidney disease.”

Just before my final year in the bachelor of pharmacy degree program, I was met head-on with this very  challenge. I was diagnosed with a chronic illness.

At that moment, I felt first-hand how my patients feel when they receive the same news during their doctor’s visit, how they feel learning they will need to take medication for the rest of their life and adapting to a new lifestyle of diets and other changes.

I always knew there was a chance I could have polycystic kidney disease (PKD) since it is hereditary and it runs in my family. Every now and then I would think about this. When would I get screened? When would I show symptoms? How do I look after myself?

Anxiety and depression a factor

It wasn’t until I headed to the Memorial clinic to get some blood work results this time last year that I inquired about it.

My doctor discovered that my blood pressure was above 160/100 mmHg, far above the normal 120/80 mmHg.

Blood pressure is regulated by the kidneys, and since I had a family history of PKD, my physician suspected this as the cause. She sent me for an ultrasound. Sure enough, cysts were detected.

New pharmacy graduate Kristen Walsh says thanks to her family, friends and physician, she has a new outlook on life with a chronic illness.
Photo: Submitted

I saw it coming, but never realized how a diagnosis would affect my life until it happened.

I felt how all of my patients likely have felt before me. I started a blood pressure medication. I started an entirely new low sodium lifestyle.

And before 2019 ended, I became anxious and depressed.

Particularities of PKD

A chronic illness in itself is a lot to get used to, but PKD also has its own path.

It has no cure. Currently, one new treatment medication is extremely expensive (a daily cost of approximately $250) and not all patients qualify for treatment with this drug.

Untreated, the cysts on my kidneys will slowly take up more space, replacing kidney mass. Throughout my lifetime, I face the likelihood of slowly losing kidney function, experience fatigue and pain and require dialysis or a kidney transplant.

While this usually does not happen until the fifth or sixth decade of life, it was, and still is, something that weighs on my mind.

“I knew I had to find a way to study the kidney.”

While 2020 has been as unusual a year as you could ever imagine, with Snowmaggedon, COVID-19 and all our graduation plans being either cancelled or postponed, including our licensing exams, 2019 was also a unique year for me.

Starting off the last year of my program, I had a new outlook on patient care.

When given the option for selecting our final clerkship rotations this past fall, I knew I had to find a way to study the kidney.

The author during her White Coat Ceremony in 2016.
Photo: Submitted

I was selected to do my second six-week rotation at Eastern Health’s Kidney Care Centre, where physicians, pharmacists and other health-care professionals work together with dialysis patients, as well as patients seen in clinic by nephrologists on site.

While difficult at times – it was easy to see myself sitting in a dialysis chair in the future – it gave me first-hand experience to see how a pharmacist can assist patients manage kidney disease, the role we have in pre-dialysis and dialysis patients alike and the value we can bring to the health-care team.

Hands-on learning

Sadly, the rotation ended early due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but I would like to thank each and every person there for welcoming me to the team and also for providing me with an amazing learning experience, professionally and personally.

While it was one of the largest hardships I have had to endure, the PKD diagnosis has taught me a valuable lesson.

I have learned to empathize with my patients even more so than before. I have learned to listen to their concerns. I have felt how they feel, because I have been there.

I am coping much better now with a new view on life, thanks to many friends, family and my physician.

I hope to be able to take this experience in my own life and use it to care for my current and future patients.

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