At 6’10, 240 lbs, training 6 hours a day and playing three-hour matches more than 80 times a year, Alonzo Mourning was living his dream: a muscular monster in top physical condition, playing at the top of his game at the National Basketball League.
Until he isn’t anymore.
When your daily work depends entirely on your physical health, you become acutely aware of any out-of-the-ordinary changes. In my recent interview with the 7-time NBA All-Star, I learned that Mourning pays attention to every detail of his body.
One day, Mourning noticed swelling in his feet. He also didn’t feel right. At the time, the NBA champion was playing for the Miami Heat, so he spoke to the team doctor about his unusual symptoms. After undergoing several lab tests, the Olympic gold medalist was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease with a very long name: focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, or FSGS.
“I was shocked and humbled because I knew nothing about this particular disease,” Mourning said. “I was completely uninformed about how it was going to affect me.”
The NBA star could hardly be blamed. FSGS is so rare that most doctors have never heard of it, let alone diagnose and treat it. Yet now Mourning can gush fact after fact, not just about FSGS but about kidney health in general. Today, the basketball superstar is teaming up with Power Forward to encourage people to be proactive about their kidney health.
Just as he was preparing for a basketball game, Mourning was preparing for his surprising health battle. “I inquired about it,” the NBA Hall of Famer explained. “I started an oral diet [of medicines] slow the progression of the disease and was able to play again. He learned that 37 million Americans have chronic kidney disease (CKD), but another 30 million “are at risk and don’t even know they have it.” The bereaved eventually underwent a kidney transplant and continues to take immunosuppressants and other medications to stay healthy.
According to Matthew Sparks, MD, nephrologist and associate professor in the Duke Department of Medicine, FSGS is actually a collection of diseases. “It’s a scarring of the glomerulus, which is the filtering part of the kidney,” says Dr. Sparks. Glomerular scarring can be caused by obesity, minimal change disease (which often affects children), and various drugs and medications. Genetics can also play a role.
“Be proactive in identifying whether or not you have the APOL1 gene,” advises Mourning, emphasizing Black, Latina, and Afro-Caribbean communities who are at greater risk of carrying this gene.
Dr. Sparks offers a deeper dive into FSGS, genetics and race. “FSGS is more common in black patients,” says the Duke kidney specialist. “About a decade ago, it was discovered that a genetic mutation had been found in a gene called APOL1. A homozygous mutation is seen in 15% of patients in the United States who identify as black. Dr. Sparks said pointed out that studies are currently underway to target APOL1 with drugs. But the APOL1 gene does not explain all the racial disparities observed in FSGS, recalls the director of the nephrology program at Duke: “The determinants Social health, access to health care, racism and other factors also play a key role.Dr. Sparks recommends Care and Justice as a reliable resource on APOL1-mediated kidney disease.
In my conversation with Mourning, I shared my concern about the lack of public awareness of kidney pathology. While most of my patients can associate chest pain or shortness of breath with heart or lung disease, kidney disease can be more nebulous. This lack of awareness can prevent timely diagnoses and treatment – and lead to massive expense. According to the CDC, overall Medicare costs for people with CKD were $87.2 billion in 2019. For those reasons, I applauded the basketball legend for using his influential platform to save lives. lives and educate people about their kidney health.
“I look back and with everything I’ve been through, I feel like I’ve become a spokesperson and a voice for those fighting kidney disease to give some hope and hope. inspiration,” Mourning humbly acknowledged. “I thought of the millions of Americans who can’t afford drugs, who can’t afford to get a second or third opinion. I knew it [Power Forward] would be a great tool to help provide information.
Another important theme of my interview with Mourning was preventative health. The most common causes of kidney failure are hypertension and diabetes, two preventable diseases. Her hope was that more medical professionals would spend more time discussing diet and exercise. I agreed and added my desire to see much more funding from local, state and federal governments towards public health agencies and targeted community initiatives.
As for common symptoms of kidney disease, look for swelling in the sensation and ankles; nausea and vomiting; loss of appetite; changes in urination; muscle cramps; and shortness of breath. If you experience any of these body changes, see your doctor for blood and urine tests.
Although Mr. Mourning and I disagree on the greatness of the basketball team – as a Torontonian, I showed him my Raptors jersey (“Well, doc, we all make mistakes at some point!”) – him and me do agree on the urgency of educating and empowering the public about health: kidney health, in particular, and preventive health, more broadly. Pay attention to your body and you will make your kidneys very happy!