Patient Stories: Marla Levy

Marla (left) receiving treatment, and Marla (right) with her family, at full recovery.

Because of complications from a congenital heart defect, I had to undergo three open heart surgeries in 16 days. The UCSF cardiac surgical team was great, but after my second surgery, my heart didn’t resume beating for almost a week. During that time, I was on ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), which takes over the function of the heart and lungs. One of the common side effects of ECMO is acute kidney failure. My kidneys shut down, and I was put on dialysis.

I was on dialysis 24 hours a day at first, and then every other day as I got stronger. It was tough. You have to stay completely still for three hours. You’re not allowed any visitors, because they don’t want your heart rate or blood pressure to change. Afterwards, you feel weak and sick, like a horrible flu. Plus, I had been implanted with a dialysis catheter – a tube in my chest for connecting me to the dialysis machine. But it was keeping me alive. The UCSF dialysis technicians were wonderful, warm and very positive people.

I also formed relationships with several nephrologists from the UCSF Nephrology Division. Every single day, several times a day, they would come in, check in with me, and ask me how I was doing. They were warm, friendly and they genuinely cared. When you’re in the hospital for 42 days, being poked, prodded, measured--it’s easy to feel like a scientific experiment and forget that you’re a human being. But the nephrologists and the dialysis technicians helped me feel like a whole person again. They gave me hope, and that hope helped keep me alive.

When I was finally discharged, I was still on dialysis three times a week, going to a commercial dialysis center near my home. Eventually, my kidney doctor there told me that I was never going to get better, and that I had to have a kidney transplant. I was horrified and depressed.

I was referred to Dr. Eichler and then Dr. Freise, two UCSF surgeons, to see whether I could get a more permanent access for different types of chronic dialysis. They in turn sent me to Dr. Chi-yuan Hsu, the UCSF Chief of Nephrology.

Within a day of the referral, I was in Dr. Hsu’s office. I went over my history, he reviewed my records, and then he said, “I think your kidneys are recovering and you’re well enough to get off dialysis.” I didn’t believe it. It was like being told I had won a hundred million dollars in the lottery. It was the best news of my life. Dr. Hsu took me off dialysis, and monitored me very closely, and I tolerated it.

Finally, I went in to have my dialysis catheter taken out. In terms of importance, that day is up there with getting married and giving birth to my children. It meant I had my life back. It took me a long time to recover, but I gathered my strength, my muscle mass increased, and eventually I went back to work full time.

Today, I live a normal, healthy life with my beautiful three- and five-year old daughters and my wonderful husband. I am so thankful every day. It’s all because Dr. Hsu had the confidence that I could get better. He gave me the chance to have my life back.