“If I were to fall asleep or if I take off too much fluid it’ll cause me to pass out,” he said. “The reality is one mistake and it’s bye bye Joe.”
“This might be a little gory,” Joe Weissinger told the Review as he injected a needle into a fistula on his left arm. “Don’t worry, I’m used to the pain.”
While sitting next to his dialyzer — a machine about the size of a mini-fridge that essentially functions as a human kidney — in his bedroom of his South Philly home, Weissinger, careful and focused, withdraws blood from his left arm. The blood goes through a tube and into the dialyzer, where it gets filtered and mixed with a solution. The machine retains the “bad stuff” in Weissenger’s blood, and sends the “good stuff” back through another tube, which is plugged into the same fistula on Weissinger’s left arm.
“I’m not used to somebody being here,” said Weissinger, asking for a brief moment of silence so he can concentrate. “I just want to focus a little bit. It can get messy.”
The dialyzer hums like a loud space heater. You tune it out.
One of the effects of Weissinger’s rare kidney disease, called Membranous Nephropathy, is that his body retains too much water. The dialyzer removes the excess liquid. On the day we meet, Weissinger weighed himself and determined that his body had about a liter more water than it should, so he set the machine to remove just that much.
Weissinger, who is 42, has been performing kidney dialysis by himself since 2014, and he’s become comfortable with the process. Or at least as comfortable with it as somebody who performs self-dialysis could possibly be.
“If I were to fall asleep or if I take off too much fluid, it’ll cause me to pass out,” he said. “The reality is one mistake and it’s bye bye Joe.”
It’s a tedious process that Weissinger, who is the assistant to the JV coach for South Philly’s Warriors football team, does five days a week. Each session takes about five hours.
Weissinger was employed as an insurance appraiser. For about a year and a half starting in June 2014, he worked full-time as an appraiser and performed dialysis on himself five days a week. But that eventually proved to be too much to handle, and he was forced to leave his job at the end of 2015. Right now, his volunteer coaching work with the Warriors is one of the main things that gets him out of the house.
“It’s such a huge escape for me because I love football,” he said. “I love coaching. I love playing. I just love working with the kids. It’s great. It’s an hour and a half or one hour that life’s totally normal, and it’s awesome.”
None of the kids on the Warriors football team are related to Weissinger. He just wants to help.
“We all were very thankful for him coming down and coaching us every night,” said 13-year-old Patrick McGinnis, who plays center for the Warriors JV team. “He has his own family and he still comes down and always helps us out and teaches us football.”
“He’s a great coach,” said JV Warriors right guard and defensive tackle Billy Cullen, who’s also 13. “Having to get his kidney replaced and still coaching says a lot about him.”
“His stamina is still there. His thirst for the game is still there,” said Kenny Bergman, the director of football operations for the Warriors. “You wouldn’t even know he was sick, which amazes me.”
There’s only one thing standing between Weissenger and living a normal, dialysis-free life: a kidney transplant. He’s been privately seeking one ever since he learned of the disease, but so far to no avail.
“I’ve had people step up to be donors in my family,” said Weissinger, “but for whatever reason, they couldn’t pass the screenings for different health reasons or age or whatever.”
About a month or two ago, Weissinger decided to go public. He started a Facebook page and a website, kidney4joe.com, in an effort to get the word out. Weissinger’s bloodtype is O+, which means he can accept a kidney from anybody whose bloodtype is either also O+ or O-.
“I was really reluctant on doing this because it’s a matter of pride,” said Weissinger, who has a 4-year-old son named Joey and a 2-month-old newborn girl named Aubrie. “I don’t even like asking my wife to help me out with all of this, let alone other people. But the reality is, I have a young family, and I want to get moving in life. I need a kidney donor to do that.”
“Overall it’s tiring, but it makes me appreciate the little things more,” Weissinger’s wife Bridget said. “His whole attitude throughout the entire thing is that he’s always positive, and I guess we appreciate things more because it could always be worse.”
If you’re interested in donating a kidney to Joe, or know somebody who might be interested, reach out to Thomas Jefferson Hospital at either (215) 503–4000 or (888) 855–6649, and explain that you’re interested in donating a kidney to Joe Weissinger.