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Tanya Howard’s success will inspire you. (And her doctor helped.)

October 08, 2018

John J. Fried Photography

Tanya Howard rises at 3 a.m. to get ready. Her ride comes at 4. She arrives at dialysis at 5a.m.

Her grandmother died at 31. Her mother died at 31. Both from kidney failure. She was only 13 when her mother died.

“I got to the hospital and she was hooked to all these tubes,” Howard recalled. “How did this ambush happen? Nobody prepared me.”

By age 27, Howard was an amputee on the way to kidney failure herself, still feeling ambushed by life, fearful her own children would be the third generation to grow up without a mother.

Yet today she is 47, an honor student, and this spring should graduate from college and begin a career as a social worker, helping others just like herself.

How does a person turn her life around, overcome, succeed?

Like this:

She was on her own. At 19, she was working at McDonalds. She had lost vision in one eye, and the other was blurry, so she went to the hospital. They told her she had undiagnosed, uncontrolled diabetes, causing cataracts in both eyes.

“I was crying and crying,” she said. “What have I done in my life that all these bad things keep happening to me. I had completely lost my faith in God.”

Still, she had this dream, to go to college, to build a life. She spent two semesters at Community College of Philadelphia, but was rejected by a man she loved. She rebounded, got pregnant. Had her son, dropped out of school.

She worked two jobs, as a home health aide during the day and at a nursing home overnight, leaving her son with sitters.

Busy, poor, and with little understanding of her disease, she neglected her own health. The cost of needles and syringes, even pins to prick her finger, added up. The poverty was crushing. “Buying my son a Happy Meal was a huge thing,” she said.

She had to get creative as a parent. “I’d take him to Penns Landing on Saturdays,” she said, “where a street performer would make him a balloon hat.”


She briefly got back with the same man, and soon came her daughter.

The diabetes got worse. Infections in her feet wouldn’t heal. She had one foot amputated, then the other.

Her son had to grow up so fast, become the man of the house. At age eight, he began acting out in school, threw a chair at his teacher. The department of youth services started to investigate her.

“I had to fight for my kids,” she said.

By age 35–12 years ago — her kidneys had failed. She began dialysis.

An older woman in the chair next to her, Miss Alice, encouraged her not to surrender.

“I’m thinking I’m not going to last very long,” Howard said. “I want to make sure that my kids understand I didn’t give up. I’m going to live my best life while I can. I’m going to go do the things I always wanted to do while I still have a life. I started making small moves.”

She went to a program at Liberty Resources that that helps the disabled learn a new skill.

“Have you gone to college before?” the instructor asked her.

“Yes. I did two semesters.”

“I can tell by your writing,” the instructor said.

That instructor asked Howard to help out at Liberty Resources, and that motivated her return to community college, and then to pursue her undergraduate degree at West Chester University’s Center City campus.

Howard was getting her dialysis at DCI, Dialysis Center, Inc., on Henry Avenue. Dr. Jean Lee, a nephrologist at Temple University Hospital, was the medical director.

“I wouldn’t trade her for anything,” said Howard.

Dr. Lee made sure that Howard could get the coveted 5 a.m. shift at dialysis on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and be out by 9:30 so she could go on to work and classes.

“Going to school is not without its challenges,” said Howard. “She has always really been there for me. `Dr. Lee, I need a letter to stay in this program…’ and she’d write a letter. Any stumbling block I came across, she always helped me over it, without any hesitation.”

Howard was the first recipient of the community college’s resiliency award. “Dr. Lee came to the ceremony and that really meant a lot in me,” Howard said.

“I can’t explain her resilience and grit,” Dr. Lee said, “but it is typical for many of my patients in this dialysis unit. They never cease to amaze me.”

Howard says while Dr. Lee “was my first encounter with the physicians at Temple and has essentially become a friend, I do have other wonderful doctors at Temple.” They include Dr William Van Decker as her cardiologist, Dr. Eric Choi as her vascular surgeon, and Dr. Ajay Rao is her endocrinologist.

“I’ve even become friendly with people in out-patient lab registration and front desk reception,” she said. “When I come to hospital and they say, ‘I haven’t seen you in awhile.’ I say, ‘That’s a good thing!’ ”

Howard is taking classes and working several days a week at an internship with an agency helping children. Her own children are now 25 and 21, and her daughter is planning to go to nursing school.

Those who sit near Howard at dialysis might as well be family. She goes to church with the woman to her right. She gives Quintin Baldwin, 59, who sits across from her, her college papers to edit. “Most people would have folded,” he says of her. “She’s so strong.”

“This is the best time of my life now,” Howard said. “I always wanted to be the person I am now. The friends I’ve made along the way, we’re still friends. I want to inspire other people — to please don’t give up on yourself.”

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Michael Vitez, winner of the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Journalism at The Philadelphia Inquirer, is the director of narrative medicine at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University.