By age of 25, the melodious voice of Chicago jazz singer Felena Bunn had taken her to every continent on the globe except Africa. She was saving Africa for a special trip, a homecoming of sorts for this African-American woman.
But a stroke in 2001 at age 26, caused by high blood pressure, put the trip on hold. Her doctors couldn’t determine the cause but recommended Bunn improve her diet, increase exercise and lose weight. So she did – and the fast-track lifestyle that comes with success in the music business had to slow down, too.
“I became a vegetarian, lost 60 pounds, hired a personal trainer and moved my home from Englewood, where there are no major grocery stores, to Hyde Park,” said Bunn, who is now 35. “I spent more than $150,000 trying to figure out what was wrong with me between ages 26 and 28.”
Bunn still didn’t know why her blood pressure was inexplicably high.
When she turned 29, Bunn got pregnant. She went to the hospital and, through routine checkups, doctors found that Bunn had too much protein in her urine. This can be common during pregnancy, so doctors were not concerned. Then Bunn had a miscarriage. Her physicians decided to follow up with a biopsy on her kidneys. That’s when they found it: focal sclerosis, a rare kidney disease where scar tissue forms on the kidney’s glomeruli – small filters that cleanse the body of unwanted material. Thousands of glomeruli make up a single kidney.
The cause of focal sclerosis is unknown, but in some cases it can result from the backward flow of urine into the kidneys. Bunn was told she was born with the condition. For some people, including Bunn, it can develop into kidney failure. For others, it can remain dormant for life. In Bunn’s case, the symptoms included high blood pressure and anemia in addition to failing kidneys.
“I was almost happy,” Bunn said of finally learning the cause of her hypertension. But her happiness was short-lived.
“I was extremely depressed because of my miscarriage, and then I found out that my kidneys were failing,” she said.
She could no longer afford health insurance, and Medicaid would not cover her until she started dialysis. That was the final blow. She’d used up every penny she had, paying for insurance and medication, and her health was not yet stable.
Bunn had dropped music for a few years while she addressed her disease, but now turned to music to help deal with her depression. The jazz singer, who had always been on the road to someplace else, discovered the Chicago scene.
At 30, Bunn’s health continued to demand her attention and she still needed dialysis. Then she met Courtney Nicholas, associate director of Minority Intervention & Kidney Education, a branch of the American Kidney Fund. The program was started in Chicago in 2005.
“We are on the prevention side, targeting minority communities,” Nicholas said. “We go into communities of color primarily and look at rates of kidney failure in cities from data provided by the National Institutes of Health in Chicago. That’s the West and South sides and they are primarily African-American and Hispanic.”
Nicholas suggested that Bunn write to the fund for financial aid.
“I filled out the form,” she said. “It didn’t even ask for proof of my kidney condition, and I forgot about it.”
A few weeks later, a check came in the mail.
“The most helpful check in years,” Bunn said.
And then she received another one.
“I started doing research because of the American Kidney Fund check. That’s when I found out about all the screenings they provide,” Bunn said. “If I’d known early on, I would have been able to do something to better my health and save my kidneys.”
Now 35, Bunn has been on dialysis for three years. She does four, 30-minute self-administered treatments daily. Her music profession isn’t back to what it once was, but Bunn sustains two careers. She’s a case manager for Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and a full-time musician who sings, manages bands and teaches vocal training.
At her 35th birthday party, Bunn had about 75 guests. She had Nicholas bring information about the American Kidney Fund to spread awareness to her friends.
“We did an info session at my party. I’m going to do that every year now,” Bunn said, adding that she is forever indebted to the American Kidney Fund.