Alonzo Mourning Rebounds From Kidney Disease

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Tell us about your new PSA push with the National Kidney Foundation. What are you and your wife, Tracy, trying to accomplish through the campaign?

First and foremost, we’re trying to bring as much attention as possible to
kidney disease; educate the general public about risk factors such as high
blood pressure, diabetes, and family history; share the warning signs and the
importance of regularly seeing your doctor; and highlight organ donation. So
many people have kidney disease and just don’t know it, which is why it’s so
important to create a relationship with your doctor. The National Kidney
Foundation provides free kidney screenings around the country.

You had a kidney transplant in 2003. That would have been reason enough to retire, but you came back to play in the NBA 2004. Why?

I came back because I knew that I had work to do. Since I went through
transplantation, I felt it was my mission to touch other people’s lives through
the pain that I had to go through. I have been able to use my experience to
enlighten — and provide hope and support to — individuals who are battling
all kinds of physical obstacles, such as kidney disease, , and diabetes.
Being back on the court has helped to lift other’s lives.

How did you first discover your kidney disease (focal glomerulosclerosis)? What was the cause?

I found out about my condition through a routine, annual, preseason team
physical. Once they ruled out all of the possible known causes, and made sure
that I did not have diabetes, they came to conclusion that I had [focal
glomerulosclerosis], which lead to
kidney failure.

Did the disease (and the transplant) change the way you think about your body and your health?

Yes, very much so. I always say that people pay more attention to the type
of gas they put in their car than the food they put in their mouth. When I was
first diagnosed, I started making decisions about what was healthy for my
body.

Did it change the way you play?

Absolutely, since the medication that I am on affects my endurance. It has
limited the minutes that I can play, which has been an adjustment for me.

How did it affect your relationship with your second cousin (Jason Cooper), who donated his kidney to you?

After not seeing each other for over 25 years, it definitely drew us closer
together. We have established a brotherly type of relationship.

How is your health right now?

Fantastic, and very stable. My doctors are pleased. I feel strong and
healthy, and part of my success has been my ability to be open to different
holistic treatments.

What is your best health habit? Your worst?

Best: I keep my body strong and continue to practice yoga.
Worst: Pizza!

How have sports influenced your health (in positive and/or negative ways)?

Positive: Being involved in sports has allowed to me to heal and deal
with kidney disease. One of the biggest mistakes that people make once they are
diagnosed is to become inactive. It might just be walking to the mailbox or
around the block, but it’s very important to stay active. Doctors were amazed
by what I am able to do after going through such an extreme procedure, and how
well I am able to do it. The reason I am able to continue at this level of
competition is because I had a good physical fitness foundation. My body was
able to recover faster, is what my doctors tell me. When patients are
overweight, and have high cholesterol and/or high blood pressure, it makes the
healing process much longer — and tougher.

Negative: I don’t believe that sports have had a negative effect on
my health at all. Regardless of how successful I am, there will be wear and
tear on my body.

Do you have a personal health philosophy? What is it?

“You are what you eat.” It is a statement that is often ignored, but you
truly are what you eat. If you eat unhealthy things, then you’re going
to feel unhealthy, as you get older. If you eat good things for your body,
you’ll feel so much better.

What qualities do you most desire in a doctor or health care provider?

I look for a very broad way of thinking in a physician. I want a doctor who
doesn’t just leave it to prescription drugs to make it happen to you. I want a
broad range of understanding on how to heal people. My nephrologist, Dr. Gerald
Appel, MD, is respected worldwide. And my holistic doctor, Dr. Hotchner, is
someone I admire.

Do you give health advice to your teammates? Do you take health advice from them?

Yes, I’ve given them herbal health remedies to help with cold and flu. But I
do want everyone to know, especially those with transplants who are taking
other medications, that before taking any herbal remedies you need to check
with your MD. Do I take advice from my teammates? NO!

How has being a parent changed you?

It made me understand responsibility even more, because I have another life
that relies on me to exist.

Did becoming a father affect how you take care of yourself?

Most definitely. For example, when I turned 30 I had a custom Aston Martin
made for me. After only driving it only once, I gave it back. When I was
driving in it I felt like I was in a cockpit — I have two children, and I knew
that this was not smart.

What single piece of health advice would you want your kids to take to heart?

Whatever you put in your bodies will have an effect on the way you feel. So
put the right things into your body.

Zo’s Fund for Life is your charitable organization that supports education, research, and financial relief for those suffering from kidney disease. To date, how much money has ZFFL raised, and what kind of impact has the organization had?

Zo’s Fund for Life has raised more than $2 million dollars since its
inception in 2001, and we continue to help with education from our expanding
web site, patient assistance, and research at the Glomerular Center at Columbia
Presbyterian Hospital. Through the feedback we have received from the web site,
it is very necessary to continue to give updated information on kidney disease
and, more specifically, on FSGS (the specific kidney disease that I was
diagnosed with).

There is not enough information out there about it, and it is our mission to
help answer some of those questions. I also know that I was blessed to have
great insurance through the NBA to help with my medications and procedures. Not
everyone has that, so we are trying to help through our patient-assistance
program. Giving someone a little bit of relief through a tough time means a
great deal. For more information about Zo’s Fund for Life, please visit our web
site at www.zosfundforlife.org.

You’re 37, which is considered an advanced age in the NBA. How long will you keep playing?

I will keep playing until I feel that I have given everything I have
left.

How do you feel about aging?

I am looking forward to it, because I have seen 70-year-old women who
practiced yoga for more than 30 years and they have aged gracefully. I am
looking forward to getting to that point and feeling good. It is a challenge —
and I always welcome a challenge.

Who are your heroes (either on or off the court)?

On court: Patrick Ewing, Hakim Olajuwon, Michael Jordan, and Julius
“Dr. J” Irving. Off court: Any parent who is working to take
care of his or her family and children.

What do you look forward to (daily, and/or in the long term)?

Spending time with my family, and then, my grandkids.

Originally published in the September/October 2007 issue of WebMD the
Magazine.