Life happens fast.
Whitefish Middle School teacher and Bulldog boys basketball coach Sean Duff had managed to squeeze a physical examination in at North Valley Hospital between coaching camps in Great Falls and Butte one day in August. It was a routine checkup, and Duff headed home thinking about basketball.
Then he saw a missed call from Dr. John Kalbfleisch, and upon returning that call he was told to get to the emergency room immediately — severe kidney failure could kill him at any moment.
“We walk in the room and there’s five doctors and five nurses, and they start hooking IVs up — I’ve been in there for two minutes,” Duff recalls. “The doctor’s like, ‘I’m going to be honest with you. We have severe kidney failure, but I’m not worried about that.”
“‘You’re actually in critical condition, you could die at any minute,’” Duff remembers the doctor telling him.
A flurry of treatments and emergencies followed. Duff spent six days in the hospital, including four days in the intensive care unit after suffering a life-threatening heart failure and seizure.
The problem turned out to be polycystic kidney disease, a hereditary disease he was unaware of before the diagnosis. Polycystic kidney disease is an inherited disorder in which clusters of cysts develop primarily within the kidneys, causing the kidneys to enlarge and lose function over time, according to the Mayo Clinic website. The disease can cause serious complications including kidney failure.
Blood tests showing extremely high potassium levels raised a red flag at the initial doctor visit.
Duff returned to the classroom this fall and started coaching boys basketball last week, but the battle isn’t over. The damage done to his kidneys is irreversible and he’ll need a kidney transplant from a living donor with type O blood. He’s got potential donors lined up — his brother, uncle and cousin top the list, and if need be his sisters, father and 20-odd people outside the family all have type O blood and are willing to help.
Duff will go to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center & Children’s Hospital in a few weeks to finish up the many evaluations needed to proceed with the transplant process. Then the potential donors will need to undergo similar testing to determine their possibility for a match.
“Realistically, I don’t see it happening until the spring, it’s usually not a fast process,” Duff said.
To cover medical costs, as well as travel and testing costs for Duff and potential kidney donors, Duff’s wife, Kyla, organized a GoFundMe page to raise money, with $50,000 set as the goal amount. In less than two weeks, the GoFundMe reached and passed that goal with $51,250 raised in donations.
“I wasn’t a big fan of [the GoFundMe] at first,” Duff said. “But in 13 days we raised $50,000. It was nuts. The outpouring of community support, and we didn’t make a dinner for like two months after I was out of the hospital.”
Right now the focus is on teaching and coaching, Duff said.
The Bulldogs have just over a week of practice under their belts and are preparing for a showdown with Eureka on Dec. 5 before heading down to Missoula to take on Dillon and Butte Central next weekend.
The health issues have a minor impact on coaching, mostly just making him late for a practice or two every couple weeks after dialysis.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t think I could do my best at it,” he said. “We’re looking forward to a good year of basketball. I don’t want the focus on me. I told the kids, ‘Me having this thing, it’s going to be no different than it ever has. Friday practices, I might be a half hour late, but other than that things are no different.’”
A few of the players even stopped by for a visit while Duff was in the hospital.
“I was only in there for a week. It was hilarious, they brought balloons and all this stuff,” he said.
“It’s like a family, these are good kids. It’s a really good group of guys.”
The diagnosis and everything that followed came as a shock at the time, but Duff has processed the whole thing well.
It’s all about the upsides, taking a positive outlook on the situation and making the best of it.
For instance, he and his wife refer to his three-times-a-week dialysis appointments as date nights, where they sit and play cribbage together.
“What are you going to do about it? You can’t change what you can’t change. You can bawl and think ‘poor me’ and ask why and be pissed, but what good is it going to do?” Duff said. “You’re still going to get up and have puffy eyes and feel the same way that you did before, and it doesn’t change that you have the problem. Why not stay positive about it?”
Right now it’s about checking off different “to-do” items on the list — dialysis appointments, pre-transplant evaluations, finding the right match — but it’s all one step at a time.
When he talks about the whole experience, he retells the story with a grin on his face. His eyes are wide and he chuckles at some of the details, like he still can’t believe everything worked out the way it did.
“There were little miracles along the way. What’re the chances I would’ve got in that day, the chances I even went to the doctor — there’s so many things that worked out that way,” Duff said. “If I wouldn’t have went, I’d be dead. [The doctor] said, ‘You’re walking death, there’s absolutely no way that you should be alive.’”