New Program Provides Freedom for Patients

“I felt powerful. I felt beautiful. I felt I had control in my life again,” said Heather Shongo, after she started peritoneal dialysis. “I told people, ‘You don’t realize how good it feels to be normal.’”

In May 2012, Shongo was the first patient at the Peritoneal Dialysis (PD) program in the Dialysis Unit at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center. Prior to that, Shongo had to drive more than two hours from her home in Becida, Minn., to Fargo, N.D., for monthly nephrology visits.

“Now I don’t have to take a full day off of work,” she said.

In peritoneal dialysis, a sterile cleansing solution stays in the abdomen for a period of time to draw waste, chemicals and extra fluid from the blood and is then drained. Patients can choose from two different forms of the treatment. In Continuous Ambulatory Peritoneal Dialysis, the dialysis solution fills the abdomen and is drained periodically throughout the day. Continuous Cycling Peritoneal Dialysis uses a machine to move the solution in and out of the abdomen while the person sleeps at night. Shongo uses the latter method, which improves her health, energy level and gives her freedom to live her life to the fullest.

“My whole day is completely freed up and no one would know I’m on dialysis,” she said.

Abnormal kidney function has been a part of Shongo’s life since birth. As an infant, she would often get kidney infections due to vesicoureteral reflux. The opening of her ureters, which carry urine from the kidney to the bladder, didn’t function properly so urine flowed back into her kidneys instead of out of the body.

At the age of 4 she had surgery to correct it, but doctors found scar tissue and her kidneys never regenerated. Shongo said she wasn’t aware of long-term kidney damage until the age of 20 and during an emergency cesarean surgery.

In 2009, her kidney function was so diminished that she needed to begin dialysis or have a kidney transplant. Fortunately, her brother was a perfect match. However, during surgery there was a disturbance while connecting the two arteries, a blood clot formed and the kidney died. It had to be removed during a second surgery within 24 hours.

“Our hopes were so high because it was a perfect match,” Shongo said. “So, to not have it work out, and be from someone I really care about, I was just crushed.”

A blood transfusion during the second surgery improved Shongo’s health. It motivated her to start dialysis in May 2011.

“Peritoneal dialysis has improved the quality of my life beyond my imagination,” Shongo said. “There is no comparison to when I started dialysis.”

Before Shongo started dialysis treatments, she would often be out of breath and fatigued.

“I just had zero energy and I’d have to put my feet up and rest because my body was so tired,” she said.

She traveled to Fargo to learn how to use peritoneal dialysis and returned once a month for regular appointments until the PD program started in Bemidji. She appreciates the proximity of the program and the accessibility of the staff, including nephrologists, dialysis nurses, social workers and dieticians.

“They have a team who is right there on call and they are able to direct me and give me the care that I need,” Shongo said. “You can’t beat that kind of care.”

Generous donors to the Dialysis Fund help the Hemodialysis Unit provide more home-based programs so patients can learn to self-manage their dialysis treatments and receive care close to home, in Bemidji. Donors also make it possible to purchase the most advanced equipment for patients who need to receive care at the medical center.

To learn more about the Dialysis Unit or make a gift, visit or call the Sanford Health Foundation of Northern Minnesota at (218) 333-5515.

Posted Date: December 2013

New Program Provides Freedom for Patients

In May 2012, Heather Shongo was the first patient at the Peritoneal Dialysis (PD) program in the Dialysis Unit at Sanford Bemidji. Prior to that, she had to drive more than two hours for monthly nephrology visits. With the help of donors, patients like Shongo have access to care close to their homes.