A dialysis patient’s tale: Rafting the Grand Canyon

Dialysis patient, Bill Peckham, was able to live his dream of rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon while still completing his dialysis treatments. Below is his account of the amazing trip.


This is my favorite photo from my first trip down the Colorado last July. It’s July Fourth; we are beached for the night below the Nankoweap granaries. You have probably noticed something odd about this photo, the answer is down there by my foot, that red cylinder is an artificial kidney – I’m undergoing hemodialysis, the first of three treatments I received over our eight day trip. This photo shows my ultimate Independence Day celebration.


Hemodialysis (HD) is a medical procedure that can do a lot of the work normally done by healthy kidneys. My kidneys stopped working in 1988, at the age of 24. Initially I tried to replace my sick native kidneys with a kidney transplant from my brother but unfortunately, my kidney disease (a particular type of FSGS) attacked my brother’s kidney too. I needed to start using dialysis in 1990, and I’ve been using HD ever since.


HD requires the blood to circulate outside the body and through an artificial kidney. A special fluid, dialysate (the large, clear bags of fluid) circulates next to the blood, separated by a semipermeable membrane inside the artificial kidney. Running the blood and dialysate past each other allows diffusion to move waste solutes, from the body into the dialysate and from there down the drain, or the Colorado, as the case may be.


Over two million people use dialysis worldwide. 400,000 people in the US use dialysis with 90% traveling to a dialysis center three times a week for a 3 to 5 hour treatment. I dialyzed at a conventional dialysis center (in-center) for 11 years. Dialysis did not keep me from traveling, I could still go to Rome or South Africa as long as I was close to a dialysis center, I just couldn’t climb Mount Everest or raft through the Grand Canyon. Since 2007, I have used a transportable HD device called the NxStage System One (my foot rest in the photo). My dialysis provider, Northwest Kidney Centers in Seattle Washington, is an innovator and leader in providing dialysis outside of the conventional dialysis center. The more I used this system, the more I began to realizeā€¦ maybe I could raft the Grand Canyon after all!


In 2012, I decided to make it happen. I contacted the National Park Service that encourages accommodations for people with medical needs. However, it was really Arizona Raft Adventures (AZRA) and the wonderful AZRA team that made the trip possible. The logistics were challenging as we planned for the adventure. Because of the time requirements for dialysis, the only way to do this trip was as a private group. I coordinated with Kim to reserve all of the spaces on the trip. AZRA got permission from the Park to bring a generator that powered my HD unit. I needed a lot of space for my equipment and supplies so AZRA added a second motorboat to make sure we had plenty of room. Randy, our lead guide gave me confidence as soon as I met him, confidence reinforced day after day on the river. The entire crew Randy, Dave, Amanda, Kat and Chris were outstanding as they kept us fed, entertained, informed and safe. We had great runs through the rapids and daily fantastic side trips. We had July weather: wind, rain and hail, alone and in combination. I had a dozen moments of a lifetime, besides the moment in the picture.


I will cherish these memories for the rest of my days but I also received something from the trip I cherish even more, something I did not expect, the trip gave me a deep sense of gratitude. Seeing the Canyon was a gift. I am so thankful for this gift. People all along the way said yes. Yes, you can do it. Yes, we will take you. Yes, I will go … thank you, thank you, thank you. This photo is the perfect celebration of July Fourth because I see my Independence from the tyranny of incenter conventional dialysis. In this photo, I see my Independence from the widely held expectations of what it means to need dialysis. I see myself living the life I was meant to live.


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