There are more than 200,000 cases of kidney disease each year in the United States, according to medical professionals. Many times, those affected can live their lives with treatments and a change in lifestyle. However, there are those that have situations more dire, and a kidney transplant is required for them to continue living their lives.
Such was the case for former Indian River High School teacher and coach Howard Smack. “Mr. Smack” was a part of the IRHS staff for more than 39 years before his health forced him to retire short of his 40-year goal.
But Smack recently found a match, after nearly eight years on the kidney transplant waiting list. He had successful transplant surgery just one month ago, on April 1, at Christiana Hospital.
His road to transplant surgery started way back in 2008, when Smack started noticing some shortness of breath. Always one that was involved and active, Smack felt something was awry when he struggled to walk the stairs at the old high school. He had already been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, but this was something that he hadn’t experienced before.
“I always exercised quite a bit,” Smack recalled. “I always was walking the stairs because we didn’t have an elevator in the school. I was officiating basketball games, I watched what I ate and was always involved in something.”
A visit to his doctor led to the idea that more tests should be done to see what was going on. Those tests revealed that Smack was suffering from kidney failure, and he would need to go on dialysis. He went on partial dialysis beginning in 2010, but two years later “another little episode,” as he calls it, forced him to go on full dialysis.
“I was going Mondays and Wednesdays and every other Friday every week for six years,” Smack said of his treatment schedule. “I was still out attending the basketball meetings and doing evaluations for officials. I didn’t want to have a pity party for myself. If I ever found myself having a pity party, I would say, ‘Knock it off, Smack — there are people that are worse off than you.’”
When he started the full dialysis treatments back in 2012, he had signed up for the donor transplant list. Dialysis was an all-day affair, and he was reminded that the process to find a match could take four to five years.
And, as it turned out for Smack, the waiting game actually took about six years to find his match.
“I kept praying; my family and friends kept praying,” he recalled of the wait for a donor.
With his surgery now complete, life can continue for Smack and his wife, Joan, and their blended family of six sons and a daughter. There is a whole new lifestyle that he lives every day, and he is certainly getting into a new daily routine.
“I wake up every day at 8 a.m.,” he said. “I have to weigh myself, check my blood pressure, and check my blood sugar because I still have diabetes. I need to eat three to four meals a day, and I have pills that I need to take every day for the rest of my life. The most important is the rejection pill, to make sure that the kidney keeps working.
“After the surgery, I was making trips up to the transplant office twice a week for checkups and to make sure the incision was healing properly,” he added. “During a visit two weeks ago, I had an issue with my GI [gastrointestinal tract], which put me back in the hospital for another week. But now I only have to go to the office once a week, and soon it’ll be once a month.”
The daily routine is becoming easier, for sure.
“There are some things you can’t miss, but it is getting easier to get into the routine,” he said. “My wife is my buddy. She’s been there for me every step of the way. My entire family and friends have been just wonderful. Everybody has been checking up on me, and they’ve been able to remind me of things that maybe I forgot.”
And what about the person who was his match to receive their kidney?
“I have no idea who they are,” he admitted. “I will venture into that soon. I do know that the person, unfortunately, died, and they harvested his or her organ for me. Because they were deceased, they had to work extra-hard to get it to go in with my body.
“It’s in God’s hands now.”
Howard Smack was a man of many hats at Indian River. During his 39-plus years with the school district, he served as a teacher for history, social studies, economics and sociology. He also served as the school’s vocational coordinator and ran its Co-Op program. He was a 9th-grade guidance counselor.
And certainly no one associated with the school could forget all the countless days and nights on the field or on the courts as a basketball, baseball, softball, track and football coach.
“I pretty much was involved in anything I could do to help the students,” he said. “I loved every moment of my time at Indian River. I woke up every day glad to go to work. I enjoyed what I was doing helping young people and knowing that you were playing a role in their life.
“They may not have thought about it like that at the time, but I see some of them now, and they say, ‘Thank you for being a part of my life, and for doing what you did.’”
By Jason Feather