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Lester Belk smiles for a reason

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Keona Ballard
For The Lancaster News

Lester Belk smiles a lot.
He smiles when you ask him about how his relationship with his wife changed since he began dialysis.
“Going through all of this made me and my wife’s relationship stronger,” Belk said. “She was always by my side, no matter what or no matter how tired she was.”
He smiles when you ask him what helps him stay positive, even though he spends nearly four hours every couple of days sitting in a dialysis center while a machine pumps all his blood out of his body and back into it.
“I just remember it could be worse than what it is,” Belk said.
He smiles when you ask him about his church, Mount Tabor A.M.E. Zion.
“My church family did what any other church family should,” Belk said. ”They prayed for me when I told them about my ordeal.”
And you sit there wondering how a man who’s been through so much can keep smiling.

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How it all started
Ten years ago, Belk was in the hospital, suffering from exhaustion. He had no idea what was going on.
“I got sick-feeling, extremely run down and tired. I had been like that for a few days and finally went to the doctor,” Belk said. “They told me there was a problem with my kidneys, and it went from there.”
They started working on his problems with medication.
He says he faced the “perfect storm” for chronic kidney disease – diabetes, a serious disease where he had too much sugar in his blood, and high blood pressure, making his heart work harder and damaging his blood vessels.
“It’s a real gradual thing,” Belk said. “You may never see it’s coming until it’s really set in.”

The sitting begins
He was so sick his wife had to drive him from their Lancaster home to his first dialysis treatment.
As he went in, he says he was glad to be there.
“I knew it would make me feel better,” Belk said, “and sure enough when I walked out, I felt a little better.”
Now he goes to dialysis three days a week for three hours and 40 minutes.
Dialysis takes all the blood out of his body, moves it through a series of filters and returns the blood to him, taking all of the toxins out, which is what the kidney does normally.   
“It could always be worse, so sitting in a chair for three hours and 40 minutes will always be better than feeling the way I felt when I first went to the doctor,” Belk said.

His life before dialysis
Before he got sick, Belk worked as the superintendent at Thomas & Betts. He’d been there 26 years but retired when he found out he had kidney failure.
“I worked 10- and 12-hours shifts until I found out I had kidney failure,” Belk said, “and it all came to an end.”
Kidney problems also changed the way he went on vacations.
“Before, I could just get off work and tell my wife we were going out of town for the weekend,” Belk said. “Now we have to plan vacations ahead of time and make sure they have a dialysis center wherever we’re going.”
Belk is a huge Bruins fan and says he used to be at every Lancaster High basketball and football game.
But his kidney failure changed that.
“I never missed a football or basketball game for 30 years until I found out about my kidney failure,” Belk said. “Now I can’t stand too much heat or cold, so I haven’t been to any in a while.”
But he didn’t let his kidney problems change his commitment to his church.
“I never miss a Sunday in church except on Christmas and Thanksgiving, and not even then because I’ll go late after my treatments,” Belk said.

What he tells people with chronic illness

Belk has advice for anyone who’s going through any disease.
First, get the medical treatment.
“If you’re feeling bad, always go to the doctor for a checkup to make sure nothing is wrong,” Belk said. “Never second guess visiting the doctor.”
Second, your attitude is what keeps you moving forward.
“Always keep a positive mindset, and remember it could be worse than what it is,” Belk said. “Be thankful that you’re still here.”
And third, take the help people offer.
“You should always let people help you because there’s a lot of times when you just can’t do things on your own,” Belk said. “There’s times when you may need them to drive for you because you feel so bad. You shouldn’t ever second guess telling your family what’s going on. You never know when you’ll need them.”

Writer Keona Ballard is a student at Lancaster High School.