Nurses in Children's Hospital Boston's Dialysis unit describe 10-year-old Richmond Sleywion as an "old soul." Even though he hasn't been to dialysis in a year, their faces still light up when you mention his name. "I just love him," Linda Gorynski, RN, says. "He's like a teddy bear. And he's a gentleman." Richmond's primary care nurse, Angela Smallwood, RN, tells of how he would brighten up the whole unit during his treatments, by drawing pictures, goofing around with other patients and belting out rap songs with Janet MacDonald, RN. His favorite was Kanye West's "Gold Digger." "I'd sing Jamie Foxx's part," MacDonald says.
You'd never guess that this boy, who's always ready to make others laugh, has seen so much hardship of his own. Growing up in strife-ridden Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, and living for a time in a refugee camp, Richmond and his family immigrated to the United States three-and-a-half years ago through a refugee program that placed them in Worcester, Mass. Just as then-7-year-old Richmond was adjusting to his new life at the start of the school year in September 2003, he lost his appetite and began to experience severe bouts of vomiting. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with chronic renal failure and began needing dialysis. So in April 2004, he began coming to Children's for dialysis three times a week for three to four hours at a time. He had to change his eating habits at home, too, abstaining as much as possible from foods containing phosphorous or high potassium, and limiting his fluid intake between dialysis treatments. "He had to be so careful," says his mother, Luna Raidy. "He couldn't drink water when he wanted to or even play with his friends."
Despite these hardships, Richmond never failed to charm other patients or his nurses during his years undergoing dialysis. He'd frequently express more concern for their wellbeing than his own. "He's so in tune to everyone else," MacDonald says. "If I needed to take a break, he would say things like, 'That's good, you need your rest.' Or if I went to the cafeteria, he would say, 'That's good, you need to eat.'"
Richmond's cheerful attitude didn't change when the nurses soberly prepared him for the prospect of a kidney transplant. Rather, he exhibited more curiosity than worry. "Even before the operation he wasn't scared," says Camilla Cook, RN. "He just wanted to know the answers to his questions. He was very cool." In fact, according to his nurses, his whole family regularly brightened their days—all eight of them. Luna would often bring in some of Richmond's six brothers and sisters to the Dialysis unit with Richmond. "I was very frustrated and worried before we got to Children's," says Luna. "But when we came here, I was happy. They told me everything was going to be OK." Continually at Richmond's side, Luna provided valuable support to her son throughout the process. But, in his typical style, Richmond didn't let this go unreciprocated, and often stepped in to help his mother understand the culture that was new to them and overcome the language barriers they sometimes ran into. Luna speaks colloquial English as a second language, the first being her native Liberian language, Gio. "Even though Luna was taking care of him, he was always taking care of her too," Smallwood says.
In April of last year, Richmond and Luna finally got the news they'd been waiting for: a kidney was available. He had the operation immediately and it was a success. "A transplant is life-changing," Renal Transplant Coordinator Theresa Pak, RN, MPH, says. "After he got a new kidney, Richmond gained a freedom in his daily life that he had not enjoyed for years." In fact, the only activity he still can't participate in is contact sports.
Richmond plunged back into his normal life after his surgery. It's been a year this month, and he's back in fourth grade and even playing basketball. And while the nurses in Dialysis are thrilled for his successful transplant and recovery, they do miss his frequent visits. Instead of three times a week, Richmond only makes an appearance at the hospital once a month for lab tests. "He still comes to visit me every time," Smallwood says, "and he always gives me a hug."
To learn more about organ donation, visit www.neob.org.