Scholars get firsthand look at kidney care

Maddie Aiken
October 29, 2018

During class, students’ intrigue and understanding of biology and medical sciences is limited to PowerPoint slides, readings and lectures.

Penn State Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering Andrew Zydney believes the delivery of this information is more impactful if students witness it firsthand. This belief led him to accompany eight Schreyer Scholars to Fresenius Kidney Care, where those students had the opportunity to watch the process of hemodialysis in action. During hemodialysis, a machine filters out waste products in a patient’s blood — a function the patient’s kidneys can no longer accomplish due to kidney failure.

Every year, around 600,000 people are kept alive on hemodialysis. On Oct. 18, as part of one of the Schreyer Honors College’s Distinguished Honors Faculty Programs, the students piled into a van and drove to the dialysis center in Boalsburg, where they learned about hemodialysis and discussed the process in length afterward at a nearby restaurant.

“Faculty always give a faculty perspective on things, but the reality is, I don’t deal with patients — that’s not my job, that’s not what I do,” Zydney said. “Getting a chance to see actual patients and a nursing staff dealing with patients on a day-in, day-out basis, to me, puts it in a very different perspective than seeing it in a classroom.”

Chuck Day, the center’s clinical manager, spoke to students in the waiting room about what hemodialysis is and what Fresenius Kidney Care does for its patients.

Patients who need hemodialysis treatment come in three times a week, and each visit lasts about four hours. Most hemodialysis is done in centers, such as Fresenius Kidney Care, rather than hospitals. About 50 percent of patients are diabetics, and 40 percent have hypertension. Many have both diabetes and hypertension. Patients are able to come in early before work, or in the late morning and afternoon.

After learning about the basics of hemodialysis, students were escorted into the treatment room. Patients, hooked up to hemodialysis machines, sat in padded, reclining chairs. They watched television, worked on their laptops, read and knitted as their blood was cleansed during the four-hour period. Patients made the process relaxing and ordinary — some brought blankets and slippers with them. Nurses patrolled the room, constantly checking on the patients’ statuses.

One of the patients spoke with the students as uncleansed blood streamed out of her arm through a clear tube into the hemodialysis machine, while cleansed blood was sent back into her arm after it had been purified. Like many other patients, she looked comfortable as she sat shoeless and covered by a blanket.

The kidneys are, in a word, important. They remove waste products from the body, balance fluids, release hormones and control red blood cell production. 

When the kidneys fail, an individual can expect to live two to three weeks if left untreated.

One in three Americans is at risk for chronic kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation. However, about 90 percent of those affected by kidney disease don’t realize they have it.

And for those who actively seek treatment, options are limited. About 25,000 kidneys are donated a year — a number dwarfed by the 30 million people affected in the United States. For many, kidney treatment does not immediately come from transplantation. Instead, many turn to hemodialysis, a more viable and accessible form of treatment.

The treatment is covered by the federal government — every United States citizen is eligible for treatment, even those without insurance.

While Zydney has taken students to Fresenius Kidney Care before, this was the first time the trip was offered exclusively to Scholars. Zydney, who teaches chemical engineering, has a strong interest in the biological side of chemical engineering. Like Zydney, the students who went on the trip had a diverse range of interests in STEM-related fields.

Chelsea Davis, a sophomore Scholar double-majoring in psychology neuroscience and Spanish, said she discovered she had an interest in biomedical engineering after visiting the center. Deepti Tantry, a first-year Scholar studying biology who went on the trip, had attended a talk Zydney previously gave about hemodialysis, and wanted to watch the process in action.

“It was really cool seeing the information I learned from that talk in person,” Tantry said. “Seeing exactly how hemodialysis works with the patient was really interesting.”

Schreyer Honors College Distinguished Honors Faculty Programs pair select faculty with Scholars in small-group learning experiences that often venture beyond the labels or definition of a particular academic major. Through field trips and discussions, Scholars of various fields of study gain insight into subjects they might not have otherwise explored.


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Last Updated October 29, 2018