A kidney transplant was a no-brainer for Khalil Bell… he just had to wrap his mind around it.
A little more than five years ago, Khalil Bell was at a crossroads in his life. Born with one non-working kidney, and the other functional but deformed, he was looking at a condition that was irreversible, knowing he would have some difficult choices ahead. Bell had to begin a dialysis regimen at 30 years old—a good 20 years earlier than the majority of patients with kidney disease. That made him an ideal candidate for a kidney transplant.
But for seven years he put it off.
The issue for Bell was his weight. He tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds and was told the procedure would not be safe until he had dropped 100 or so. Bell’s doctors at Trinitas put him on a strict dietary program, but he wasn’t responding as well as they’d hoped. For a time, he got used to the regimen at Trinitas’ Linden Dialysis Clinic, which, because of his weight, took five hours a visit instead of the typical three-and-a-half for other patients. Ruby Codjoe, Director of Renal Services at Trinitas (right), could see Bell was becoming increasingly frustrated. These were years he would never get back.
“Are you prepared to do this the rest of your life?” she asked one day.
“Ruby,” Bell answered, “you tell me what to do.”
“Transplant,” she said.
“I needed help,” Bell recalls. “I had to overcome my own ego and a certain amount of arrogance about my situation. Ruby Codjoe really helped me turn my life around.”
“When you are in your 30s and dialysis is the rest of your life, that means stopping everything and coming in three times a week,” she says. “This illness is no joke.”
To qualify for a transplant, he’d first need to drop a significant amount of weight—a process that involved bariatric surgery—in addition to making a dramatic change in his eating habits. Codjoe helped Bell navigate the complicated process of scheduling bariatric surgery and, eventually, getting added to a kidney recipient list. With her support, Bell adopted a diet and workout routine that led to a total body transformation and, ultimately, a new kidney.
“Ruby and everyone at Trinitas were amazing,” he says. “I felt really fortunate that they were with me throughout the process.”
Not that any of this was a slam-dunk for Bell. On the contrary, just three months after he lost the weight and was added to the kidney recipient list, he got the call in the middle of the night that there was a match for him. He knew that some patients wait years for this call, but he said Thanks but no thanks.
Mentally and emotionally, Codjoe says, he just wasn’t ready. “It was just too soon.”
Fortunately, when the call came again six months later, Bell was good to go. A donor kidney is only viable for four to six hours. He was instructed not to eat anything until the hospital was certain it was a perfect match. When Bell got the thumbs-up a while later, he made his way to the kidney transplant program at Cooperman Barnabas Medical Center, in Livingston. The procedure went smoothly, taking about three hours, and Bell was discharged a week after doctors determined his new kidney was functioning.
Five years later, Bell (right) is eating well, working out religiously, and dealing with the cocktail of anti-rejection drugs he must take for the rest of his life. He is also a rock-solid 230 pounds.
“You would think he’s a championship body builder,” Codjoe says. “His life has changed totally.”
“The hardest part was the lifestyle change,” he says. “Getting up early to hit the gym every day, making better food choices, just having that discipline. Actually, the working out has been the easy part.”
Bell will be the first to tell you that the journey to significant, sustained weight loss is a formidable one—both mentally and physically. He’ll also be the first to tell you that if this is what stands between you and a lifetime of dialysis, it’s a journey worth toughing out…and that, if you need someone to walk with you on that journey, he’ll be the first to sign up. Bell is just a phone call away from the team at the Linden Dialysis Center. When the Trinitas staff needs someone to speak with a patient who’s losing hope, or to deliver a motivational talk to potential kidney transplant candidates, he’s happy to oblige.
“Today, when I have somebody who is struggling—especially a morbidly obese younger person,” says Codjoe, “I call Khalil and tell him there’s someone here who needs his support, someone who needs to hear from him what’s involved in the bariatric surgery and the transplant process.”
“I’m happy for the chance to share my story if it helps others,” Bell says. “I feel blessed every day.” EDGE
Editor’s Note: Erik Slagle has been writing health stories for EDGE for a decade. He was among the first to sound the alarm on the hidden dangers of vaping in the 2018 feature “Blowing Smoke.”