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Merrill Oaks/Amyloidosis

Feb 03, 2016

Retired ophthalmologist Merrill Oaks was enjoying an active life and spending time with his family when he started to experience symptoms of kidney failure at 77.

"All of a sudden, I gained a lot of weight and my ankles were swelling," Oaks recalls.

He went on dialysis, losing 25 pounds of water in a bid to help his kidneys recover. The next step was figuring out what caused his kidneys to malfunction so severely. Josephine Abraham, MD, a nephrologist with University of Utah Health, ordered a kidney biopsy and diagnosed a plasma cell disorder called amyloidosis.

Amyloids are proteins in the blood that can't be broken down, so they build up in organs and keep them from working. Different types of amyloids can attack the heart, liver, nerves or, in Oaks' case, the kidneys.

The symptoms and treatment are similar to that for multiple myeloma, so Dr. Abraham referred her patient to Huntsman Cancer Institute for treatment. Amyloidosis can't be completely cured, but treatments can dissolve the protein deposits or keep them from forming.

For Oaks, the first treatment choice was ruled out. "Younger people would get a bone marrow transplant," he explains. "But for people my age, the mortality rate was 50 percent.

"I took the doctors' recommendation to do chemotherapy instead, and have been happy with their judgment."

Still, chemotherapy was not smooth sailing. Oaks had several complications, including pneumonia and an infection in his leg. "I was close to dying and they pulled out all the stops," he says. Once he was stabilized, adjustments to the chemotherapy regimen greatly improved his quality of life.

Oaks went to medical school in Rochester, New York and worked for many years in St. Louis, Missouri. He specialized in glaucoma and did research at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He believes his experience as a doctor helped him persevere during his medical treatment.

"Being a doctor, I think I was understanding of how hard they were trying," he says. "I really appreciated how kind they were and sensed a genuine concern to a remarkable degree."

Two and a half years after the initial diagnosis, his amyloidosis is in remission and he has nothing but praise for Huntsman Cancer Institute and its staff. "I've never been associated with an institution from top to bottom with more gracious and caring staff," Oaks says. "The Huntsman is an amazing place."

Now approaching his 80th birthday, he tries to keep up with his usual activities, including volunteering at the LDS temple and teaching a Sunday school class. "I don't want to crawl in a hole," he says. "That's when you start to die."