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Health Column: Five weeks after a new kidney, a Ph.D.


The prospect of defending a thesis to a panel of discerning advisers is enough to make any Ph.D. candidate sweat. Still, I’m willing to bet most of them haven’t done it from home, via Skype video software, just five weeks after receiving a kidney transplant. 

Remarkably, that’s precisely the situation Nanette Yavel, a 72-year-old Greenport psychologist, found herself in less than four months ago.

Ms. Yavel’s story “begins” in 2012, when doctors told her she would need to start dialysis within six months because a medication had damaged both her kidneys. Not surprisingly, she was reluctant to dive into treatment.

“I was very frightened because of my work,” she said. “Dialysis is very difficult. It’s three times a week and 3 1/2 to four hours each time. They actually take your blood out of your body, clean it and put it back in.”

Concerned that the treatment would make her too tired to see clients and complete coursework toward her doctorate in psychology in an online program at California Southern University, Ms. Yavel began researching her options. She came across a 2004 book by Mackenzie Walser and Betsy Thorpe called “Coping with Kidney Disease: A 12-Step Treatment Program to Help You Avoid Dialysis.”

According to a description on the book’s back cover, people with kidney failure may be able to avoid dialysis, perhaps indefinitely, by incorporating a “supplemented low-protein diet supported by treatments to control blood pressure and correct high cholesterol.”

Intrigued, Ms. Yavel became an adherent of the program, taking amino acid supplements five times a day while chipping away at her dissertation about conduct disorder in children. In the meantime, her name was placed on a kidney transplant list.

“You have to take your health into your own hands and be your own doctor to some extent,” she said. “I saw about 10 dietitians and nobody said anything about this book.”

By committing herself to a diet low in protein and high in amino acids, Ms. Yavel said, she was able to stave off dialysis until this past April, when doctors said her potassium level was too high.

“I knew that it was inevitable,” she said. “I was just happy that I had taken all the courses, I had written my dissertation and I was just waiting to present it.”

After seven dialysis sessions, Ms. Yavel learned a donor kidney was available. She underwent surgery May 13 and “was really kind of out of it. I couldn’t get out of bed, pretty much.”

Gradually, though, she began to feel better. On June 25, she was well enough to successfully defend her 150-page thesis from home, via computer. That same day, she was awarded her long-awaited doctorate in psychology.

“I’m 72 and it took me about six years to study for this, one course at a time,” Ms. Yavel said. “It’s never too late to keep learning.”

And she isn’t about to slow down. In addition to hosting a psychology workshop later this month at Southold Free Library for parents who have children with behavioral disorders, Ms. Yavel is an active member of the Riverhead group “Poetry Street.”

A published author, Ms. Yavel said one of the things she likes writing about are “human tragedies” — which got me thinking.

“You’re not a human tragedy,” I told her. “You’re a human triumph.”

“Absolutely,” she replied. “Absolutely.”

Photo Caption: Greenport psychologist Nanette Yavel successfully defended her doctoral thesis just five weeks after she underwent a kidney transplant. (Credit: courtesy photo)

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