An Indication Of Growing Obesity Epidemic: Dialysis Clinics Dot Urban Landscape

May 29, 2012


Driving south on Elvis Presley Boulevard to get to the DaVita clinic at 1205 Marlin Ave., takes you past Graceland, but it also takes you past a site far more common in the U.S.—a cornucopia of fast-food restaurants. There’s KFC, Burger King, McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and Little Caesar’s, just to name a few.

“If we can get rid of one or two…one or two fast-food restaurants we’d be okay,” joked Regional Operations Director Doctor Edward Woody who runs this DaVita clinic.  

The two leading causes of kidney failure in the U.S. are diabetes and high blood pressure. Once a person’s kidneys fail they need to be placed on dialysis for the rest of their life, or until they get a kidney transplant.

As the related problems of obesity, diabetes, and hypertension increase across the country, so do the number of people on dialysis. Since 1980 the number of people initiating dialysis because of diabetes has increased almost 20-fold.

One out of every 10 people in the U.S. has chronic kidney disease and requires dialysis. There are dialysis clinics behind hospitals, next to nail salons in strip malls, and in residential neighborhoods. DaVita is the second largest provider of dialysis in the U.S. Almost 15 years ago there were only 134 DaVita clinics nationwide. Today there are 1,841.

Before coming to DaVita, Woody worked in the military, which has height and weight requirements for admission and, once you’re in, demands physical training.

“Coming into this environment it has been hard, because patients are so accustomed to doing it this way, and they are very resistant to change. Some of them are more resistant to change than they are to death,” Woody said. “And won’t change their diets, won’t change their way of life, even though that way of life got them into this center.”

The clinic is small. There is a modest waiting room and a few offices, but the largest room is where the dialysis takes place. Blue chairs line the wall, 16 of them, each chair is connected to a dialysis machine. Once a patient is set up in the chair, the dialysis machine does what a healthy kidney does—it filters toxins out of the blood.

Registered Nurse Emma Cox has worked with dialysis patients for 30 years and she has noticed something—

“It’s more younger people,” she said.

Cox doesn’t just treat dialysis patients. She’s also been one. It came as no surprise to Cox that she needed dialysis. She says she didn’t eat as healthily as she does today and kidney disease runs in her family.

“My mom was on dialysis,” Cox said. 

Cox is also female and black. Women are more likely to be on dialysis than men. And African-Americans are four times more likely to need dialysis.

Cox went on dialysis, she improved her diet, and she got a transplant.

“I feel like I learned to eat better because I feel better,” Cox said.