More than a decade ago, Tad Suwa was on the brink of fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a firefighter.
But during routine medical tests required for the academy in 2000, doctors noticed his blood pressure was high. Since then, Suwa, now a Sacramento Fire Department firefighter, has battled a nightmarish decline of his kidneys.
After a failed transplant of one of his sister's kidneys, Suwa, 41, now receives dialysis three times a week, spending more than three hours each visit hooked up to a life-saving machine that cleans his blood.
"I do have some kidney function, but not enough to keep me alive without dialysis," Suwa said.
Suwa, who possibly contracted a kidney disease from a strep infection as a teenager, is getting some special attention from Team Donate Life. The capital-area nonprofit organization raises awareness about organ donations and searches for a second kidney donor.
The group is having its second 5K run Sunday as a way to locate a donor for Suwa and others who need organ transplants. The event will have information about relatively new worldwide networks for "paired organ donations," involving sets of willing donors and recipients.
The One More Life 5K Run begins at 8:30 a.m. at Glen Hall Park in River Park.
The run is expected to draw up to 500 runners, said Jared Ellison, executive director of Team Donate Life. Last year, 100 runners participated and the event raised more than $5,000 for organ donation education.
Ellison said there are 118,000 people on a nationwide registry for organ transplants, with 90,000 of them waiting for kidneys, the organ most in need.'
About 12 people a day die needing a kidney transplant, according to the national kidney registry.
"The clock is ticking on these people," Ellison said of prospective organ recipients. "They need a transplant, or they're not going to make it. The list grows every day and people are dying. It's kind of senseless."
Kidney donations in particular have little impact on donors, Ellison said.
"We have two kidneys, and someone can donate a kidney, save a life and the donor's life goes on completely normal," he said. "If more people were educated about it, there wouldn't be anyone on the list at all."
While surgical methods and technology for transplants have improved vastly, organ donation, especially from live donors, is still shrouded in fear and mystery, Ellison said.
"When it comes to organ donation, there are lots of myths and it makes people nervous," he said. "Donors wonder if they're donating something they need, and donations often involve death of a person or loved one, which is upsetting."
Ellison said he hopes to find a willing donor for Suwa, a 10-year firefighter on medical leave.
"This education component is so important for someone like Tad," Ellison said. "Things aren't good for him."
In 1990, Suwa was diagnosed with Berger's disease, or IgA nephropathy, a disease in which antibodies attack the kidney. He had just graduated from high school and didn't realize the long-term toll the disease would take on his kidneys.
"My doctor gave me a treatment of prednisone, and I thought I was all done with it," Suwa recalled.
After a donation of his sister's kidney in August 2012, he went to a doctor's appointment a month later and was surprised that nurses there immediately helped him into a wheelchair and took him for his first dialysis session.
The donated kidney did not get enough blood flow and failed. Meanwhile, his kidney function had dropped to below 10 percent of normal.
Already, the lowered kidney function has led to neuropathy, an intense burning sensation in his hands and feet.
These days, a fatigued Suwa conserves his energy for helping around the West Sacramento house he shares with his girlfriend and their four children. After dreaming about being a firefighter since he was 11 years old, Suwa has to restrict physical activity and stick close to home because of a compromised immune system.
"It's still hard to believe that this has happened," Suwa said. "My dream came true for the past 10 years, and I desperately cling to the hope that I can soon return to helping others."
LEARN MORE: For more information on the 5K run to benefit live organ donation education efforts, go to www.teamdonatelife.com
"We have two kidneys, and someone can donate a kidney, save a life and the donor's life goes on completely normal. If more people were educated about it, there wouldn't be anyone on the list at all."
JARED ELLISON, executive director of Team Donate Life
Call The Bee's Anne Gonzales, (916) 321-1049. Follow her in Twitter @AnneGonzo .