A sense of renewal Transplant recipient knows gift of freedom firsthand

By Brian Cox

Legal News

James Ziety was feeling a little worn down. But maybe that was to be expected. The ambitious 28-year-old was pushing himself pretty hard, after all: working days in Ford Motor Company's marketing and finance operations and then heading off to attend his first year of law school at night. He was inclined to attribute his overall malaise to the grueling schedule.

When he saw a doctor about a week before year-end exams, though, Ziety learned it was not his schedule that was sapping him of energy. It was his failing kidney, and the situation was dire.

"Did you drive here?" asked the doctor.

"Yes," said Ziety.

"You shouldn't have," he was told. "You're not leaving now."

The doctor referred Ziety to a nephrologist, who started the young law student on dialysis immediately.

"It was totally unexpected," recalls Ziety nearly 33 years later.

He had had one kidney removed when he was four, but since then he hadn't had any problems or warning signs that the second kidney was in trouble. In fact, it remains unclear why either of Ziety's kidneys failed.

The nephrologist delivered what for many would be grim news: Ziety would have to quit law school, would probably have to go on disability and would have to undergo dialysis three nights a week.

That didn't exactly fit into Ziety's plans. He was dogged and driven and had no intention of letting his condition prevent him from moving forward.

"I've always been very determined and goal oriented," says Ziety.

For the next year, Ziety's regular drill consisted of traveling from work at Ford to class at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law to dialysis at the hospital. It made for some long days and late nights.

"I was insistent that I had to know how to hook myself up to the dialysis machine and take myself off because I had a schedule," says Ziety of those days. "I told them I know how to do this. I don't need nurses and everything."

What he needed, he concluded, was his own dialysis machine because then he could go through a treatment overnight at home while he slept. He pitched the plan to his nephrologist, but the doctor didn't like the idea. And Ziety didn't like that he didn't like it.

"We had a philosophical disagreement," says Ziety. "I didn't last long there."

Ziety found a different nephrologist, one with whom he had a "philosophical agreement." The new doctor was willing to allow Ziety his own dialysis machine and encouraged him to not let his health problem impede his life. Ziety has been seeing the same doctor now for three decades.

Still, even with his own machine, life on dialysis was far from easy. It got old fast. But for the next half dozen years or so, dialysis was a part of Ziety's every day life

That's just the way it was.

"You look back now and say, 'Geez, how did I do that?'" says Ziety. "Dialysis is very hard on your system. It was never intended to be a permanent solution."

In the early 1980s, Ziety was one of the first to try continuous ambulatory peritoneal dialysis (CAPD), which requires no machine. The dialysis solution passes from a plastic bag through a catheter into the abdomen where it stays for several hours before it is drained into an empty bag for disposal. The solution is usually changed at least four times a day.

It was better than the machine at least. It offered some freedom.

In the summer, when Ziety and his wife Jill took four weeks to sail Lake Huron's North Channel, he loaded the boat up with dialysis supplies and off they went.

Defying the prediction of his first nephrologist, Ziety graduated law school in 1979, first in his class, and passed the bar the following year. He stayed with Ford, working in its Trade Regulation and Distribution Practice Group. In 1985, he was named senior attorney and counsel of Ford's Global Business Transactions Practice Group.

It was the same year he decided to put his name on the list for a kidney transplant. He was ready.

He waited nine months. It was Aug. 19, 1986, and he was on his way to teach a dog training class when the beeper they had given him went off. A kidney was available. Ziety left for the hospital immediately.

"It's that fast," he says. "When they have it, it's now."

He remembers being wheeled down the hall to the operating room when a nurse put a blue-and-white beer cooler on his lap.

"Hang on to this," she told him.

It was his new kidney.

"I thought that was strange," says Ziety. "I'll never forget that."

Ten days later, he was released from the hospital and, as he describes it, he had his freedom back.

"As soon as my kidney was working, I wanted out of there," says Ziety.

Ziety says a doctor best summed up how he felt when he said: "You never know how bad you feel until you have a transplant and realize how good you feel."

After nearly a decade of dialysis, his daily schedule was finally once again his own.

He retired from Ford in 2002 and joined the law firm Borda Lorenz in Novi where he brings his years of experience at Ford to focus on contracts, corporate transactions, aviation law, energy law and trade regulation. He sits on the Finance and Administration Committee of the board of the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan where he assists and advises the board on financial issues and offers some free legal advice.

"It's a great organization," says Ziety of the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan. "Having a transplant is very personal, but I'm a real proponent of it and want to encourage people to be organ donors."

Ziety now checks in with his nephrologist twice a year and gets blood work done every six to eight weeks. It's a far cry from the daily demands of dialysis.

"A transplant is an incredible, amazing gift to get," says Ziety. "I'm happy every day I went through it."

Published: Mon, Mar 1, 2010