Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Blood Brothers: Hyattsville Teen Wants to Create Kidney Dialysis Superheroes

by John Kelly)

In his imagination, Elmer Reyes wears a cape, possesses super strength and can fly. In his imagination, Elmer is a superhero.

Elmer describes his alter ego to me as he sits in a large, padded chair at Children’s National hospital. Two tubes snake from his arm. One removes blood from his body. The other returns it, freshly purified.

“It does what a kidney usually does,” Elmer explains of the machine whirring by his side, “which is clean out my blood and filter it.”

Elmer is 18. He has kidney disease, and for pretty much his entire life, he has come here for hemodialysis three times a week, 21 / 2 hours each time.

That’s given him a lot of time to kill. Usually he watches TV or listens to music. But lately Elmer has been thinking about creating a comic book about kids like him.

“The concept is: Patients in dialysis, what makes them strong and what makes them weak?” he says. “What if I made a comic strip that represents us?”

He calls it the Kidney Kids for Justice.

“It’s the kids here in dialysis,” says Elmer, who lives in Hyattsville. “They get their power from a big accident that they had,” he says, sketching the group’s origin story. “A nuclear meteorite hit them while hanging out at the arcade.”

Each member of the Kidney Kids for Justice dresses in a specific color and has a unique power. The green member — the leader, whom Elmer sheepishly admits he modeled on himself — can fly and is super strong. The red member can create fire. The blue member can talk to animals. The black-clad one can communicate with the underworld. The purple one is super-intelligent.

“She’s the one that strategizes to create weapons,” Elmer says. “She also changes people’s minds from bad to good.”

Changing people’s minds is one of Elmer’s aims. He sees his audience as not just kids who have kidney disease, but also those who don’t. “Because the concept is for people who are not in this type of situation to get the idea of what a patient has to go through,” he says. “I think with this comic book they would have a better understanding of it.”

That includes the Monday, Wednesday and Friday dialysis appointments, but also the diet and fluid restrictions. Kidney patients, Elmer explains, are restricted from eating foods high in phosphorus, such as tomatoes, and those high in potassium, such as bananas. They can’t drink dark sodas, except for root beer, or eat chocolate or pizza.

Understand that and you’ll see why Elmer’s comic book universe includes certain archenemies. There’s the Dairy King and Pizza Man. There’s the Chocolate Lord, the villain who rules from a chocolate planet and sent the meteorite that empowered the Kidney Kids but who can also bring them to their knees.

Falling prey to temptation saps their strength. “Their medications give them strength to help them with their powers,” Elmer says. “Also, going to their [dialysis] treatments helps them reenergize.”

The comic book idea came to Elmer last month when Judy Ross of the hospital’s Child Life department organized an event called Hero Day. Costumed superheroes — Spider-Man, Captain America — visited the hemodialysis unit at Children’s National, as did members of the military. Ross had patients decorate capes they could wear.

“Miss Judy had this idea to create these capes for us patients, showing that we are heroes, too, because we go through so much that we’re really strong,” Elmer says.

Elmer is short of stature, a common result of kidney disease. He had a kidney transplant when he was 10, but the organ was viable for only two years. He likes reading mysteries and is a fan of the “Hunger Games” books. He’s a senior at DuVal High and has an older sister and two younger brothers. He’ll take the SAT this month. He thinks he’d like to be a doctor. His favorite superhero is the Hulk.

Elmer has been dictating story lines to Ross. He hopes someone might pick up his comic, although he realizes he’s lacking something important: an artist. “I think of the ideas,” Elmer says. “It’s just that I don’t know how to draw.”

He’s pretty sure some of his fellow patients do, though, and he’s thinking of asking one of them to come aboard.

As the dialysis machine beeps, signaling that his treatment is over, I ask Elmer one last question: Are the Kidney Kids always victorious?

“I think so,” Elmer says.

Be a hero

Today marks my last column in this year’s fundraising campaign for Children’s National, but the work at the hospital goes on. Elmer will be back Friday for his next treatment.

Many readers have stepped forward to push us toward our $400,000. Have we made it? I’ll announce the total next week. Until then, you can make a tax-deductible gift by visiting or sending a check (payable to “Children’s National”) to Washington Post Giving Campaign, c/o Children’s Hospital Foundation, 801 Roeder Rd., Suite 650, Silver Spring, Md. 20910.

Your gift today can make a difference in the life of a child.