By Alicia Doyle

The Writer
Specializing in Good News
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For one night, their kidney disease problems get left behind

Photo by Karen Quincy Loberg/Ventura County Star: Pamela Vera, left, and Taylor Reynolds, both 14, capture their limousine ride to the prom. While Taylor was undergoing dialysis, she met and befriended Pamela, whose late family member also was awaiting a transplant.

Monday, January 28, 2008
Ventura County Star

Born with kidney disease, 14-year-old Taylor Reynolds endures dialysis three days a week as she awaits an organ donor.

Michael Willkomm, now 21, was diagnosed in 1993 and had a transplant on his birthday two years later.

And 21-year-old Teresa Barajas, who had her first kidney transplant at 8 years old, is now on a waiting list for a new one.

"I had kidney failure, but it lasted for 15 years," said Teresa, who undergoes dialysis three times a week. "For me, it's a miracle I had it for 15 long years."

The obstacles faced by the three Ventura County youths briefly disappeared for one night as they joined hundreds of others like themselves at the ninth annual Renal Teen Prom at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks.

Presented yearly by the Renal Support Network, the dance, designed Hollywood style, is set as a gala senior prom for those 13 to 24 years old with kidney disease and their guests.

The free prom gives teens the chance to meet and get to know one another outside a medical setting and create friendships that will last a lifetime, said event founder Lori Hartwell, who has lived with the disease for nearly 40 years.

"Teenagers with kidney disease miss large amounts of school because of prolonged absences due to health," said the Glendale resident. "The prom brings these young people together to share their experiences, strengths and hopes — and to create friendships that will last a lifetime."

The theme of this year's event, "Winter Elegance: An Evening Sparkling Like Diamonds," transformed the school gymnasium into a winter scene, with faux snow and pine trees speckled with thousands of miniature white lights to illuminate the darkness.

In a nearby room with a sign that read "Star Treatment," young ladies received free hairdos and makeup from volunteer artists. Outside, promgoers spilled out of stretch Hummer limos and other free transport provided by volunteer drivers.

"It's fascinating to see hundreds of kids all with kidney disease going to this prom," said Stephen Furst, 53, of Moorpark, who is on the RSN board of directors. "We have a big Hollywood designer come and design the set. We do limo rides for the kids, glamour makeup for the girls; we even have donated prom dresses. Our main focus is the kids."

A roomful of similar stories

The event creates a nonjudgmental environment, since all the promgoers' peers are just like them, Hartwell said.

"This was a very difficult time for me and I missed many of the coming-of-age events, such as the prom," said Hartwell, who spent ages 12 to 24 on dialysis and missed her senior prom. "It's hard to feel cool as a teenager with kidney disease."

Those on dialysis or with a kidney transplant have many obstacles to overcome, she said, such as restrictive diet, medication side effects, rigorous dialysis schedules, waiting for a kidney transplant and so many unknowns that an illness can bring.

"This is a night for them to be themselves," she said.

Taylor, who lives in Oxnard, started primping four hours before the dance kicked off at 6 p.m. She picked up her dress at the UCLA dialysis center, where donated gowns were free for her choosing.

The eveningwear, which the young ladies can keep, is donated, as are ties for young men, to ensure that everyone feels elegant.

"Many come from low-income families who cannot afford both kidney care and prom dresses," Hartwell said.

Taylor picked a short, fire-engine-red, spaghetti-strap style with a full, flowing skirt. On her feet: red, strappy shoes with spiked heels.

"When I tried on this one, my mom said, You look hot!'" said the teen. "That's when I knew this was the dress."

She heard about the prom last year but was in the hospital with kidney problems and couldn't go.

"It sounded fun," said the home-schooled eighth-grader, "and a new thing for me."

After stepping into the winter-scene prom room Jan. 20, she was surprised at the magnitude of the display.

"I've been to school dances, but nothing like this."

Knowing just about everyone in the room was living with the disease in some way was a comfort, Taylor added.

"It makes me feel better; I feel like I'm not alone," she said. "These people are going through what I am."

Mutual support is valued

Barajas of Oxnard, who went to the RSN prom in 2003, was "counting down the days" to this year's dance, which inspired her to wear a long, bright pink dress with sparkles and spaghetti straps.

She came back this year because "we give each other strength."

"I meet other people that have the same problem that I have," said Barajas. "I can relate to them, and it's cool to tell them I've gone through the same thing or worse and they know they can overcome obstacles."

It was the fifth year in a row for Willkomm of Simi Valley, who heard about the prom from his doctors.

"I wasn't interested in my own prom," said Willkomm, who graduated from Royal High in Simi Valley in 2005. "I wasn't into it at the time."

He attended the RSN event for the first time five years ago with his aunt, Katherine Willkomm of Lancaster. Since then, "we made it a yearly tradition — a party," he said. "It's a great event. It's good for all of us to know we're not alone; there are others like us out there. Plus, it's fun."

For more information about the Renal Support Network, go to http://www.rsnhope.org.

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