How Willie Stein keeps his smile

Willie Stein makes it a point to embrace and enjoy life even though he admits dialysis is challenging, sometimes more than others.

“Some days you feel like giving up, but you want to live, and once you get past being mad, you get to fight back mode,” he says.

This sense of resilience is one reason why he’s appreciated around the clinic. He brings light-heartedness and a sense of community to the environment. About his fellow patients who he dialyzes alongside, he says, “I know everyone and help everyone. The staff is just like family.”

He often delivers fresh fruit and vegetables to his fellow patients and to staff. He and his wife Patty have family and grandkids in Sunnyside east of the Cascades, so when they go visit them, Willie will take orders for produce from Eastern Washington, could be asparagus, peaches, whatever is in-season.

Willie is also a serious sports fan, especially of the hometown teams. He often dons one or another Seattle sports outfits along with a smile. He and Patty have season tickets to the Seahawks, Sounders and Kraken. While they love the games, that’s “just so many” Willie says, so he and Patty are also generous with their tickets, too.

Willie and Patty, ready for the game.

“When we’ve been blessed, we want to bless those that bless us,” he says.

Originally from Michigan, he enlisted in the army and was stationed in Korea after basic training. After Korea, he was stationed at Fort Lewis (now Joint Base Lewis McChord) in Tacoma and quickly fell in love with the area. He ended his military career after some time in Germany and settled in the Pacific Northwest.

Willie followed his military training into a career in transportation. He can tell you alternate routes to just about anywhere in the area since he drove for decades. At 47, he’d had enough of the transportation industry and decided to go back to school to learn about composite and wing manufacturing. Soon thereafter, he began a second career at Boeing.

Adjusting to kidney disease

A few years ago Willie got sick with a respiratory infection. Routine bloodwork during a doctor visit identified that he was in the beginning stages of kidney disease. He began paying attention to the fatigue he felt constantly, even walking a few blocks would exhaust him. His legs were often swollen. He decided it was time to see the kidney doctor.

He met with a nephrologist and was referred to Northwest Kidney Centers Next Step classes that focus on CKD where he learned that a healthy diet and regular exercise can slow and sometimes even stave off kidney disease.

“You do what they tell you,” Willie says. “When someone tells you what you need to do to live longer…Patty and I listened.”

“You need to be motivated to live,” he says. “A lot of things you can do yourself to be healthier. Eat right and exercise.”

Following that advice, he was able to sustain his kidney health for a time, but not long after he began working with composites and wing production at Boeing, his kidney function dropped to the point where dialysis became necessary.

When Willie found out, “I did my homework,” he says. “That’s why I chose Northwest Kidney Centers.”

Willie and Patty out for a walk.

Starting out

He started on Peritoneal Dialysis (PD) with Patty as his care partner. However after a while he decided to transition to home hemodialysis instead. Patty’s help was vital as Willie hates needles. Knowing how Willie felt about needles made even it more difficult for Patty to get the needles in his fistula. After a couple of years doing home treatments, Willie decided to get dialysis at the Burien clinic. Patty did not mind relinquishing her duties.

Willie is committed to losing some weight these days, not just for the health benefits, but because less weight equals shorter dialysis and more time to do other things that are more fun.

Humor in the face of dialysis

Hand in hand with his smile is Willie’s sense of humor. He’s something of a practical joker.

Everyone in the clinic, patients and staff, know that Willie doesn’t like needles. Somedays you’ll hear Willie give out a loud “Ow” well before he’s connected for treatment, followed promptly by giggles and chuckles as he may not even have sat down in his chair yet. Sometimes you’ll hear an “Ow” from others followed by more laughter.

He so appreciates that the nurses and dialysis technicians in his clinic because they accept his equal opportunity harassment. “We’re all comfortable with each other,” he says with a smile. “And it’s good to be around people you trust.”

Unfortunately Willie is not eligible for a transplant because of the existing damage to his veins. Sharing his blessings and his sense of humor both help Willie “get my smile back.”

Thankfully so. We all need more of that.