A Breath of Fresh Air

Last July, I learned that the Renal Support Network was having its 9th Annual Essay Contest. The theme was “What hobby helps improve your quality of life and helps you forget the many challenges kidney disease presents?” This theme really spoke to me and I knew I had to submit an essay. As I would hike in the canyon, I brainstormed my thoughts and ideas on how I would answer this question.

It was very easy to write this, because I am extremely passionate about hiking and how this helps to improve my quality of life.

I was ecstatic when Lori Hartwell, RSN Founder and President, called to announce that I was the 1st place winner of her essay contest.

I am excited to share with you my winning essay and hope you enjoy reading it. I am looking forward to hearing what hobby helps improve your quality of life and helps you forget the many challenges kidney disease presents.

My 1st place winning essay:

A Breath of Fresh Air

I’m thankful for the vast amount of hospital memories that have been tucked away in a box, in the bottom shelf of a dresser drawer, down a long hallway, in the back of my mind. However, if I close my eyes there are some memories I can retrieve instantly and re-live the moment.

In 2002 I was lying on a gurney, ready to be taken to another operation. I had been in the hospital for several months, and my tiny veins couldn’t handle the daily blood draws. A port was put in my neck so blood could be drawn easier. I was accustomed to being pushed through cold, dark hallways of Johns Hopkins, from one building to another, hearing the wheels squeak in the quiet hallways and feeling every bump along the way. The usual view was the plain ceiling and cement walls. However, one day my father asked the transport service: “Is there any way we can get her some fresh air?” They paused, and said: “Sure, we can go a different way today.”

Off we went down the hall, turning left, then right, and straight ahead for a long time. All of a sudden I heard the noise of a door opening and my view of the plain ceiling was transformed into a gorgeous blue sky, with puffy clouds. A cool breeze blew across my face. I felt alive. This breath of fresh air was the medicine I needed. As fast as the freedom arrived, it vanished as we entered the next building. That day I experienced a feeling that I embraced, a sensation that gave me hope; let my imagination run wild. It was an emotion that led me to my love of the great outdoors.

Whether you have had a bad day at work, or like me, have been battling polycystic kidney disease from an early age, we all need a breath of fresh air, an escape from reality. Today, my escape is hiking in the great outdoors.

This year I hiked the tallest waterfall trail in the US, and the second tallest in the world: Yosemite Falls. I never underestimate what our bodies can endure. I spent 11 months in the hospital when I was 19 and 20, when both my kidneys were removed. I was on dialysis, and thankfully received a kidney transplant. I believe there is nothing I can’t overcome.

As I hiked 2,425 feet up Yosemite Falls, I did not think of the challenges I face on a daily basis due to kidney disease. Instead, I felt empowered. Hiking has improved the quality of my life, not only physically but mentally. It is vital to always have something to look forward to and set goals and achieve them. As my fiancé and I climbed up the granite cliff, I stood at the bottom and giggled and thought: “I’m going to hike to the top of that!” The journey to the top was difficult, with constant uphill grades and switchbacks, however the perfect blue sky and sunshine kept me focused and determined to reach my goal. Adventures like this contain mysterious, hidden treasures along the way, and breathtaking views become snapshots in your mind.

My favorite moment occurred when I reached the top of the mountain and looked down to see how small everything was, and how far I had traveled. I looked at the mountains in the distance and my mind was clear, my imagination soared, and I was hopeful for my future. I took my 2:00 p.m. transplant meds at the top of Yosemite Falls, filled with sheer joy, proud of my accomplishment, and overwhelmed with the beauty of transplantation and what I am able to do today thanks to the gift I have been given.

When I am enjoying nature, life seems clearer to me. I consume the simple beauties of the world, re-energized. I reflect on what really matters and dream about the great future ahead of me. I felt like I was on top of the world, standing at the summit of Yosemite Falls. Birds soared at eye level and I was engulfed by a calm, peaceful feeling that told me: “Everything is going to be ok.” I reflected on my life and how far I have come and how far I plan on going. Living with kidney disease is not easy, but I am proud to say I am not only surviving but I am thriving!


Link to essay:


If you are interested in participating in this year’s Renal Support Network’s 10th Annual Essay Contest, please visit the below link for more details. Entries must be received by August 1, 2012.



  1. Shane Titus

    I absolutely love everything you said in your essay. I was hooked from the get-go. I was diagnosed this past October with PKD and have had to make drastic changes in my lifestyle. I was running anywheres from 8-20 miles every day and it is one of my passions. When I found out I had PKD, I went into depression and suffered a lot of anxiety attacks. I suffered very painful cysts ruptures and just didn’t feel like myself. I have recently gone back to my running an it has helped me so much. I am dealing with my condition a lot better these days and reading your story only makes me stronger in my pursuit to beat this condition. Thank you for writing such a beautiful piece of encouragement.

  2. Valen Keefer

    Oh my gosh, Shane, I have goosebumps after reading your post. I can’t thank you enough for sharing your thoughts and your story. Wow, 8-20 miles a day is quite impressive. Running seems to be too hard on my body, so I stick to hiking. I have found that exercise helps me tremendously. During that time it lets my mind relax and I do not think about or worry about anything, which is so great! Something that has also helped me is listening to my body and not overdoing it. This I continue to struggle with, but working on it. 🙂 I too had a lot of cysts ruptures in middle school and high school before they removed both of my kidneys. And, yes, they are extremely painful. I am so happy to hear that you are dealing with things a lot better these days. I hope that continues and I hope my blog can keep that positive momentum going for you. Please keep in touch.

  3. Shane Titus

    Thanks Valen!!! I agree with you about the listening to your body and how hard it is to determine how much is too much or when to shut it down before it gets to the pain. I am so hoping to finish my first half-marathon this October but my doctor and my wife are strongly against such an event. I believe I can do it…and I am only going to do it once so I can prove and say to myself that it was possible and that I can beat this disease, if for just this one time. Again, you are such an inspiration. I have read other peoples blogs and stories and I believe that it just pushed me further into depression because they were so horrible. I haven’t had a bad day in the last month or so and I’m hoping I can keep it going with such great support. Thank you again!!! I will definitely keep you up to date.

    • Valen Keefer

      Shane, wow a half marathon, that’s amazing! We sound a lot alike as I like to climb mountains and always say I want to climb a certain mountain just once so I can prove and say to myself that it was possible and that one can live a fulfilling life post transplant and with an incurable disease. That is the stubborn side of me! 🙂 This blog is all about positivity and I hope you continue to enjoy it! Let me know about the half-marathon. If you decide to do it, be safe and I wish you the best of luck. I have great confidence that you will keep that momentum of good day after good day!

  4. Lorrie Patton

    I am SO excited to happen upon this blog!Our daughter, Talia, was diagnosed with ARPKD at age 8 months.Since then she has endured years of hospitalizations, many Dr. visits, and lots of medications, as you have.At age 10, she received her 1st kidney transplant,a gift from her Daddy.She began college, but after finishing her 1st year,needed another transplant.At age 19,she received her 2nd kidney,a gift from a deceased donor, Austin.We bought your book, “My Favorite American”, and you secretly became our hero!Talia recently graduated from college, & I can’t wait to give her info on your site! Thank-you, Valen, for your inspiration, positive attitude, and encouragement to others! God’s blessings, Lorrie

    • Valen Keefer

      Hi Lorrie, I am SO excited you have found this blog. 🙂 I have goosebumps and it makes my heart so happy and grateful to read that I have secretly become your hero! That means more than you will ever know. Amazing what Talia, you and your family have gone through and just fabulous that she recently graduated from college. Do you live close to Northern CA? Thank you so much for reading my biography, for your kind words, for sharing your story and connecting here on my blog. Hearing what Talia has endured at such a young age and what she has accomplished is so inspiring. Thank you for brightening my day!

  5. Lisa Dalto


    How did I miss this beautiful essay? Your gift of words transported me to the world you experienced at Johns Hopkins and the exhilaration you have felt through hiking. I want to get out in the woods and feel that again, too! Thanks for sharing this fabulous gift.

    • Valen Keefer

      Aww thank you so much Lisa! I would love if you and your family were able to visit Noah and I someday and we can all hike together! That would be so fun! You know how special your family is to me and I miss you all dearly! xo

  6. Roy Eshelman

    I have always been inspired by the lessons of your courage Your life has definitely fit that purpose. Thank you!

    • Valen Keefer

      Thank you SO much Roy…and thank you for your continued support!!!


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