Former football player lives on dialysis
The lights are turned off. The shades are pulled down, and the room is quiet. The only sign of life is the television tuned to “SportsCenter.” The volume is loud enough so the former Iowa defensive lineman can hear the highlights from last night’s baseball game but still quiet enough to fall asleep to.
Wrapped under a light blanket, the 28-year-old wakes up, his eyes bloodshot and weary. He’s been sleeping since his 6 a.m. arrival at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. He looks exhausted.
At 28, this wasn’t where Jory Helms expected to be. But it’s where he needs to be — the nephrology wing on the third floor, going through dialysis treatment.
Long, clear, plastic tubes meant to transfer blood sprout from his tattooed arms. The blood travels to a big white machine to be filtered. The tubes seem to pulsate with every heartbeat.
He suffers from end-stage renal failure, more commonly known as kidney failure. The machine is keeping him alive.
His kidneys function at close to 0 percent. He is in desperate need of a new organ. But his O-negative blood type makes finding a donor difficult.
Yet despite two missed opportunities for a kidney transplant, he remains determined.
Determined to fight. Determined to live. Determine to overcome the same disease his father couldn’t.
Four years ago, Jory thought it was just a sinus infection.
He felt terrible. A headache, along with body aches and chills, took over his body. Congested and unable to breathe, his sinuses were draining into his chest. Hacking mucous continually, he had enough.
He left his job at an insurance agency in Coralville and drove to Mercy Hospital in Iowa City. The ER doctor noted that Jory’s blood pressure was high and suggested running a few additional tests. He complied.
A few hours later, the doctor returned with bad news. The symptoms weren’t signs of a sinus infection. Rather, Jory’s kidneys were functioning at only about 10 to 15 percent.
In hindsight, the decision to go to the hospital saved his life. Those weren’t typical symptoms of kidney failure, but they may have been related to his declining kidney function, said Douglas Somers, Jory’s nephrologist at the UIHC.
The Journal of the American Medical Association describes kidney failure as the inability to “remove wastes, causing buildup of waste and fluid in the body.”
More than 485,000 Americans suffer from kidney disease, with 341,000 on dialysis, according to the National Kidney Foundation; 19.6 percent of people diagnosed are between the ages of 20 to 44.
The most recent statistics suggest more than 85,000 die every year from the disease.
“Unfortunately, there are frequently no early symptoms of kidney failure because you’re built with about 10 times the kidney capacity you need to feel well,” Somers said. “Frequently, people lose a lot of their kidney function before they feel sick. And then when they do feel sick, they’re not specific symptoms.”
With only 7 percent of the country possessing O-negative blood, finding a donor for Jory is tricky. But another consideration is tissue type. Somers noted that because the majority of donors are white — particularly here in Iowa — finding someone with the right blood and tissue type can be difficult.
After hearing the initial diagnosis, Jory’s emotions got the best of him. At 24, he seemed too young and too healthy to be struck with such a serious condition.
“I just bawled. It literally felt like I got hit by a brick wall,” he said. “I just was speechless for a second and then in disbelief. I just remember tears falling down my face.”
The diagnosis had particular meaning because just four years earlier, the disease had killed his father.
In Jory’s case, end-stage renal failure may have been hereditary.
“He is young for this to happen, but if he has a genetic tendency to it, that would not be unusual,” Somers said. “If you look in the African-American population, they tend to get it fairly young.”
Today, his mother, Lovice Helms, recalls not believing what she had initially heard.
“It was like déjà vu all over again,” she said. “I just saw him as being in his dad’s shoes and it kind of frightened me. I didn’t know with Jory being as young as he was, he didn’t have kids, never gotten married, I wasn’t sure how this was going to play out.”
Growing up in Chicago, Jory always loved football — partially because of his older brother, Shun.
As a kid, Jory would tag along and watch him play. Shun was good enough to earn a spot as a cornerback on the football team at Benedictine University, a Division-III school in Lisle, Ill.
Jory had success on the football field, too. As a linebacker for Leo Catholic High School in Chicago, he earned all-area and all-conference first-team honors as a senior.
Originally, the young athlete was interested in Eastern Michigan and Purdue. But after visiting Iowa, everything changed. He called the coaches later that day and committed, becoming part of Kirk Ferentz’s first recruiting class in 1999.
While it was originally then-assistant football coach Bret Bielema who had taken notice of Jory, Ferentz still remembers the initial encounter he had with the 6-2, 220-pound football player.
“We met him. He came in for a visit, and we were very impressed,” Ferentz said. “Jory is a good young man with a great family. We felt like he’d be a good fit here.”
Upon arrival that fall, the scholarship athlete had to adjust to college life in Iowa City. But during his sophomore season, he had a new challenge — switching to a different position on the field.
Ferentz and his staff wanted to make the defense faster, so they decided to move a group of linebackers and other position players to the defensive line.
“We agreed to it. It wasn’t like they forced us or anything,” Jory said. “It was a little different playing with our hand on the ground, but it was fun. A lot of fun.”
But later in the season, Jory had to deal with a far more difficult challenge in his life.
His passing was sudden.
Nothing seemed to be too wrong when Jory called his father, Gordon Helms, and asked how he was feeling.
“All right,” Jory remembers his father saying.
But within one short week, things went from “all right” to his father’s admittance to the intensive-care unit to his unexpected death on March 1, 2002.
Jory knew his father hadn’t been in good shape. But no one in the family knew the severity of how sick he really was. Described as “hard-headed” by Lovice, it seemed that Gordon only wanted to do things his way, sometimes ignoring guidelines given by the doctors.
“He wasn’t used to being sick for one thing,” she said. “And he didn’t know how to accept his sickness. It was hard for him to really see himself being in the condition he was in. He was a strong man.”
Jory had volunteered to get tested to see if he was a match to help his father, but it wasn’t what he had wanted.
“My husband thought if Jory donated a kidney, he wouldn’t be able to pursue his goal of being a football player because that’s what Jory loved to do,” Lovice said.
And it just so happened that love kept him in Iowa City, too.
“If I had known at the time, it was as bad as it was, I would have went home as soon as I could have,” Jory said about his father’s illness. “Not being there, not being able to talk to him face-to-face before he passed away, that’s what really bothered me about it.”
It was a difficult moment.
Jory left school for a week after learning about the loss of his father. He felt he needed to gather his thoughts.
Should he continue school and football? Or should he be home with his family in Chicago?
Words of wisdom from his mother helped guide him back to Iowa City.
“His father always wanted him to get his degree and get an education,” she said. “I knew that with his father passing, even though he was gone, the only thing Jory was going to do was be some comfort for me here.
“But I felt like it would have been better for him to put his mind to good use and pursue his degree. I encouraged him to do that, and his father would have loved it also.”
And so he did. While the rest of the semester was difficult, he found support back at Iowa, playing for the team and pursuing a degree in art.
Jory is thankful for getting an opportunity to do what he loved. After redshirting his freshman year, he played in four seasons, making 15 appearances in limited action with four tackles in his career.
Despite the limited playing time, Ferentz can still recall the difficult path his former player traveled.
“Jory endured some tough times, certainly of his father’s passing,” the coach said. “He had a rough go early in his career. He did a great job of fighting through that and really became a really valued team member as he matured and got older. But it wasn’t an easy road for him.”
But football helped.
Practices and weight-lifting sessions often distracted the sophomore from the heartache he felt. And at 20, it also helped him develop a resiliency he would need sooner than later.
Learning from his father’s mistakes, Jory refuses to give up.
He splits time between his day job as a bank teller and his night job working at the Airliner. With girlfriend Elyse Meardon by his side, Jory tries to look past his health challenges.
But the disease is never too far away.
He attends dialysis treatments three times a week. He goes to the UIHC and gets hooked up to a machine that does for him what his kidneys can no longer do on their own. But despite his stature, the process can still be draining.
“[Dialysis] feels like you just ran a marathon,” he said. But it’s getting easier. “I don’t feel as rundown as I used to.”
He also follows a strict regimen of medication, including taking 30 pills a day.
“It’s sort of a pain,” Jory said. “I have to take four pills for parathyroid hormone. Then there’s three to four other pills I take for blood pressure. Then there’s these two pills I have to take seven of with every meal.”
The schedule isn’t easy to keep up with, but it’s one that’ll keep him alive. He can stay on dialysis for the rest of his life, but a healthy new kidney would be the best option.
The former Hawkeye with the bright smile couldn’t have imagined spending his life in the hospital, but he maintains an optimistic attitude.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “So obviously, it’s to teach me or to make others aware of it.”
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