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Rice Health Foundation gala in Willmar, Minn., to raise funds for enhancing dialysis care

Nolan Baker of Kerkhoven, left, converses Friday with Leah Peitz, a nurse at Rice Memorial Hospital, as he undergoes dialysis at the Willmar hospital. Rice hopes to raise funds this weekend, through the Rice Health Foundation's annual gala, to improve the experience of the hospital's dialysis patients. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

For patients undergoing dialysis at Rice Memorial Hospital, the hours spent in a chair, tethered to a machine that filters their blood of the toxins their kidneys can no longer handle, can be long, uncomfortable and dull.

Money raised this weekend by the Rice Health Foundation at its annual gala will be spent on improving the experience of the hospital's dialysis patients.

The gala, whose theme this year is "Rockstar Ball," annually raises $65,000 to $75,000 for hospital services and is the nonprofit Rice Health Foundation's main fundraising event. Volunteers organizing the gala reviewed several projects and chose the dialysis service as this year's recipient.

The funds will be "well-used," said Mary Beth Potter, director of the hemodialysis and hospice departments at Rice.

More than 50 people with chronic kidney disease come to Rice Hospital for dialysis at least three times a week.

Some are able to go off dialysis after a short time, but for many others, the treatments may span years, said Deb Buffington, a registered nurse and operations coordinator of the unit.

It's the goal of the staff to help these patients fit their time at the dialysis center into the rest of their lives -- not the other way around, she said. "We are here to support them so they can live."

The money from the Rice Health Foundation will be used to increase the number of patient stations from 12 to 13. The result will be more flexibility and convenience, Potter and Buffington said.

The new station will be used mainly for hospital inpatients, making it easier to meet the needs of the outpatients.

"The staff works very closely with patients, especially with patients who are working or going to school, trying to accommodate their schedule," Potter said. "The flexibility with that additional station is going to be huge."

Because many inpatients who need dialysis often have other health issues, the new station will be equipped with a ceiling lift to help them safely be moved.

Funds also will be invested in new recliners and TVs.

The current manual recliners are wearing out from daily use, Buffington said. New recliners with power options and memory foam will enable patients to sit more comfortably. New TVs also will help them pass the time with a favorite program or DVD or an educational video.

Dialysis treatment can last three to five hours and must be repeated three or four times a week, Buffington said. "It gets to be a long time. It's the little things that make a big difference."

Remaining funds will be spent on an evaluation program with the National Kidney Foundation to help screen people at risk of chronic kidney disease. The comprehensive screening has come to Willmar twice, Buffington said. The first year, 111 people were screened; last year it was 120.

"It was surprising the percentage of people who didn't realize they were at risk," she said. With early identification and proper medical management, many of these individuals might be able to delay or avoid the onset of chronic kidney disease, she said.

Two of the most important risk factors are high blood pressure and diabetes. Hispanics and African Americans also are at higher risk of kidney disease, Buffington said, noting that the dialysis center at Rice has one of the largest percentages of Hispanic patients of any dialysis program in Minnesota.

Funds are limited in the current health care environment, and the dialysis staff is looking forward to how the Rice Health Foundation money will enhance the service they offer, Buffington said.

Rice's dialysis program marked its 45th anniversary this year as the oldest independently operated service of its kind in the state, she said. "There's no other in Minnesota that's like that. We couldn't do it without the community support we get."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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