By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
On her 16th birthday, Leah Kaufman woke up with her eyes swollen shut.
A big fan of romance comedy movies, the Santa Rosa High School student initially thought “maybe I cried too much at the romantic comedy last night.”
But her body soon began doing other disturbing things. Her legs and feet swelled up and her shoes no longer fit.
She experienced rapid weight gain — 20 pounds in a month — and began having trouble breathing when walking across campus.
Even though she was on the swim team and considered herself “a pretty fit person,” she struggled for air during swim meets and “thought I was going to drown.”
With each symptom, it became clear something was seriously wrong with her body.
That experience at the end of her sophomore year in 2011 would lead to medical tests, a kidney biopsy and diagnosis of a rare, auto immune kidney disease called Membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis.
At first, Leah was devastated.
“I didn’t know what to believe in,” she said, and asked “Why did God do this? What did I do wrong? Why is the world punishing me?”
But she refused to let the disease get the better of her.
By radically restricting salt in her diet, taking steroid medication, blood pressure reducers and other measures, she’s been able to manage her condition.
Exercise has played a pivotal role.
A month after being diagnosed, she decided to run in the Nike Women’s Marathon Half with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and honor a family friend who had succumbed to cancer.
“It was my way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m still strong,’ and proving it to myself,” she said.
She battled intense pain and cramps in the run, but finished and raised $2,800. This year, she collected almost $1,000 for the National Kidney Foundation’s San Francisco Kidney Walk.
Leah said the encouragement and support she received made her realize she is not alone in her battle.
And by volunteering, she said “it turned into something bigger than me.”
Last month, she spoke to an audience of about 1,000 people assembled for the Kidney Foundation’s annual Author’s Luncheon in San Francisco, sharing the stage with top writers and telling her story.
“She did a beautiful job,” said publicist Kristen Green. “There truly wasn’t a dry eye in the audience after she spoke.”
Leah feels fortunate to have had great doctors, lucky she hasn’t needed a kidney transplant and that her disease is in remission.
Now a senior at Santa Rosa High, she has an impressive 4.46 grade-point average. She juggles advanced placement courses, including government and Spanish, supplementing those with classes at Santa Rosa Junior College in calculus, English and French.
She is president of the National Honor Society, vice-president of the Climate Protection Club, and belongs to the History Club. She is also in the school concert choir and on the varsity swim team.
Her youthful zest and cheerfulness give no hint of the ordeal she’s come through.
Santa Rosa High School Principal Brad Coscarelli said she is not only highly successful academically, but committed to the community.
In recommending her for a scholarship last year, he cited her determination, strength, “idealism and passion for creating change. Despite her crippling disease, she has rallied again and again to overcome this obstacle.”
Leah is applying to colleges that include Stanford and UC Berkeley and wants to become a doctor in pediatric medicine.
“I’m hopeful some day I can treat patients like I was so lucky to be treated,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Birthplace: Santa Rosa
–Lives with: mom, Sarah; father, Michael; and sister, Anna
–What’s on her iPod: Taylor Swift, John Mayer, Brendan James, Ed Sheeran
–Favorite hobby: travel, including visits to Croatia, Netherlands, Chile and France
–Dream job: Broadway singer and pediatric oncologist
–Favorite TV shows: “Seinfeld” and “Bones”
–Favorite food: Japanese
–Favorite quote: “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. .. . I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” — Robert F. Kennedy