At-home dialysis is changing lives of Utah kidney patients

MURRAY — It wasn’t long after Zach Thomas was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease that he knew dialysis was inevitable.

The self-proclaimed “ski bum,” a late-’90s transplant from New York, is grateful such a thing exists, but he still doesn’t enjoy the time he’s hooked up to a machine to facilitate what his body cannot do.

“I was lucky enough to catch my disease early enough and stay ahead of the game,” Thomas, who lives in Kamas, said at the recent official opening of the new Kidney Care Center at Intermountain Medical Center.

The 43-year-old is a patient at the facility, but because of innovative technology, he is able to perform his own dialysis in the comfort of his own home.

“It’s lifesaving, kind of like a magic pill,” Thomas said. Doing it on his own saves on travel and time spent sitting in a medical office multiple times a week.

“The home environment is much more comfortable. You get to be where you want to be, with family,” he said. In addition, he’s able to spend more time with his wife and 3-year-old son, who are typically by his side during the nearly three-hour procedure, five times a week.

The new clinic brings together doctors and nurses who specialize in kidney-related disease, as well as dietitians and others who can help patients maintain as good of a quality of life as they can with such an impactful condition.

“When people progress to the point of needing dialysis, their quality of life really diminishes dramatically,” said Dr. Marc Harrison, president and CEO at Intermountain Healthcare. He said chronic kidney disease is one of the most common chronic diseases in the country, affecting an estimated 37 million people in the United States.

The dialysis machine cleans Zach Thomas’ blood at his home in Kamas on Sunday, Sept. 8, 2019. Thomas sits through five, 2 1/2 hour treatments a week in his house rather than the three treatments he would receive at a dialysis clinic. Doing the treatments at home allows him more freedom. (Colter Peterson, KSL)

“People can spend their whole lives — it feels like — in a dialysis center receiving hemodialysis,” Harrison said. “It affects them emotionally, physically, and it affects their families.”

To that tune, Intermountain, he said, aims to increase access to treatment, specifically before dialysis is ever needed. The new center has the capacity to focus on prevention and early detection, even facilitate early transplant, if necessary — truly “doing the right amount at the right time” for each patient, Harrison said.

“Having people in the least restrictive, least expensive and most holistic environment possible for them to stay as well as they can,” is most ideal, he said, adding that the new patient-centered approach “can drive value over cost over time.”

Harrison said if the model works for Intermountain, across Utah and in southern Nevada and Idaho, it could be useful elsewhere, across the country, helping a lot of people and their families suffer less.

Dr. Suji Lee, an interventional nephrologist and medical director at Intermountain’s kidney clinic, said 1 in 9 adults suffer with chronic kidney conditions, which will only increase as the population ages.


To me, it means freedom.

–Zach Thomas


Available treatment options, including early detection using artificial intelligence, she said, can help reach patients who feel lost or out of control of their health because of certain social determinants and other barriers they might face.

Thomas was diagnosed in December 2017, and at the time, still had more than 90% of his kidney function intact. That changed quickly, as his collapsing focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which ultimately shrank his kidneys into oblivion, dwindled function to less than 7%.

He tried various available drugs to prevent kidney failure, but they didn’t work for him and he grew weak.

Dialysis gives him energy to play with his son, as well as maintain his normal employment as a bartender.

“It saves so much time in travel and I get to experience it in a much more comfortable environment,” he said.

“To me, it means freedom.”

He never really thought he could die from his disease, but Thomas did say he is grateful to be able to manage it so conveniently.

If not preventable through diet and other interventions, Lee said, kidney disease, fortunately, is treatable.

Dialysis is essentially a filtering treatment to maintain balance within the body by removing waste, salt and extra water that would otherwise build up in the body.

The technology that makes it possible to do dialysis at home is about half the size of a typical hemodialysis machine and is gentler on the body. It requires more frequent treatments, but sessions are shorter and reduce bothersome side effects that many people experience, according to NxStage, which created the home therapy system.

Dialysis at home typically results in more energy for the patient and less stress on the heart, as it filters more fluid out of the blood more frequently. The company claims patients using the NxStage system also have better blood pressure control and require fewer medications. There are also fewer psychological side effects and an increased chance of transplant, due to more frequent dialysis treatments.

The average waiting period for kidney transplant from the national deceased donor waiting list can be up to five years, depending on patient circumstances and the availability of organs, according to the American Kidney Fund, a nationwide nonprofit advocating for patients with kidney disease.

Empowering patients with the resources to take control of their own situation, Lee said, can lead to better outcomes and, she said, staying ahead of disease is of utmost importance.

Wendy Leonard