DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - It’s Sunday at about 1 p.m., and the guy swimming laps in the pool at the Los Angeles Athletic Club shouldn’t be here.
Well, he should, because he has a weak heart that needs strengthening, but he shouldn’t because, well, it’s complicated.
The 55-year-old gliding slowly but surely through the water en route to a mile-and-a-half workout is Andy Bales, who for more than eight years has worked as the CEO of the Union Rescue Mission, the largest homeless shelter in Skid Row. At the time of the swim, he was also less than four months removed from a kidney transplant.
His organ donor? That would be his wife, Bonnie, the woman swimming at a notably quicker clip in the same lane.
That’s one couple, exercising together, each living with one kidney.
Bales has a history of health problems. A diagnosis of genetic diabetes when he was 13 led to chronic kidney woes, and kidney problems highly correlate with ticker trouble. Bales had a heart attack at 30.
In March 2012, with his kidneys near failure, Bales was seeking a transplant. He was intent on avoiding dialysis, the necessary treatment once the organs shut down, mostly because he feared it would prohibit him from serving at full capacity as head of the mission, which houses 810 men, women and children a night, and serves about 2,000 meals a day, among other services.
That he’d be so focused on getting back to work, instead of nurturing and resting his body, might surprise some. But not Bales’ colleagues, among them David Dow, who chairs the URM board of directors. He calls Bales “a human dynamo.”
“He just goes all the time and you have to caution him to take time off,” Dow said.
That spring, a doctor declared that Bales’ heart was also weak and removed him from the kidney transplant list. Transplant surgery, the doctor said, would be too risky for someone with a weak heart. That presented a quandary: To qualify for a transplant Bales would need heart surgery, but the operation would spell total kidney failure and thus dialysis. Bales opted to try to improve his kidneys through diet and skipped the heart surgery.
Then, one day in June, he had trouble breathing. He took a bath, which had eased the same symptoms the previous day. The tightness in his chest persisted.
He rushed from his home in Pasadena to Glendale Adventist Hospital, where Bonnie works as a nurse. He soon learned that he had suffered another heart attack, but hadn’t realized it.
Shortly thereafter, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery.
Get on the Bike
Bales came out of the heart surgery weighing 226 pounds. Today he’s down to 169.
After heart surgery his kidneys were in even rougher shape. Still hoping to avoid dialysis, Bales stuck to a strict kidney-friendly diet. He didn’t slow down at work though: He attended a URM board meeting 16 days after the bypass. Two weeks later he was working full time.
He also got on his bicycle, and on Oct. 1, 2012, he participated in a charity ride in Long Beach. Despite pedaling as hard as he could, he came in dead last.
That last place finish, and the laboring miles of the race, finally convinced Bales to start dialysis and commence the process to get a kidney transplant. But there was another complication: Bales knew his blood type was the extremely rare O negative.
Then, he got the biggest surprise since his heart attack. Tests revealed that his blood was actually A negative, and he had been given the wrong information years ago. The more common blood type increased Bales’ chances of finding a match.
For organ transplants, siblings, parents and children are the most likely candidates for a match, but Bonnie was reluctant to allow any of their six kids to donate a kidney. So she got tested, and her blood had the same profile of what a doctor would expect to find in Bales’ sibling.
“That in itself seemed like a miracle,” Bonnie said. “As a wife, when you live with someone who’s had chronic illness, I just almost felt guilty a lot of the time, like why was I blessed with good health and someone like Andy, with the work he does, struggles every day?”
They talked it over — a lot — and weighed the risks. Bales said he tried to dissuade her. Bonnie insisted.
While awaiting the transplant, Bales began a three-day-per-week dialysis regimen during the evenings that he kept up for about five months. This allowed him to continue to work full time at the mission, where he oversees day-to-day operations, helps lead the on-site ministry and helms the fundraising efforts.
In February, he and Bonnie went in for the transplant surgery. It was a success, but afterwards the surgeon told Bales that his arteries had narrowed. The doctor urged him to live actively as a way to try to reverse the years of negative effects from ailing kidneys and a weak heart.
Bales took the advice to heart, perhaps more than the doctor could have expected. Five-and-a-half weeks after the operation, he and Bonnie competed in a reverse triathlon (in which racers run, bike, then swim) in Pasadena. Foot problems prevented Bales from running, so he walked that portion, but he completed the race.
By summer, Bales was following an intermediate triathlete’s workout regimen. That meant at least one hour per day, six days per week, on the bike, in the pool or in the gym (he skips the runs).
He has only taken it further: He now exercises seven days a week, at least an hour and a half per day, and rides his bicycle an average of 120 miles each week. He completed a 50-mile ride in Death Valley and, on a recent weekend, rode 77.6 miles round trip from his home in Pasadena to Long Beach.
All the exercise is paying off. Bales recently had a check-up nine months after the transplant operation: The doctor found that his kidneys had improved and were functioning at 60%.
The improved health, naturally, gives him more energy for work: During the mission’s Thanksgiving celebration, Bales was front and center, deep frying 580 turkeys in 24 hours.
Bonnie and others try to slow him down, at least at work, but to no avail. Don’t even suggest retirement.
“A lot of people look at him and scratch their head because I think a lot of people would use this as an excuse,” Bonnie said. “But I’ve lived with him long enough to know there’s no slowing him down. You just kinda let him do it.”
Never mind that Bales’ job in the heart of Skid Row is no cakewalk. Every day he is surrounded by poverty, mental illness and struggle. As much as the mission helps people get off the streets, homelessness in Los Angeles can feel like an intractable problem. One person recovers, but one more hits the streets, it seems.
Bales, though, is motivated by the individual successes.
“We’ve really focused on ending homelessness one life at a time through life transformation,” he said. “As long as I’m making a difference in someone’s life I feel like I need to continue.”
Every day he’s taking steps, pushing pedals and swimming laps to make sure he can.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2013