KENNEBUNK, Maine — On Saturday, friends and neighbors and maybe even some strangers will gather to eat dinner together and support the Searles family at the Dorothy Stevens Community Center in Kennebunk.
Bobbi and Al Searles will be there, too, but for Al Searles, walking through that door won’t be easy.
“It’s very humbling and embarrassing,” he said of the community coming together to help him. “Bobbi and I could certainly use the money, so I’m not going to say no. But I don’t like it.”
For Searles, chairman of the Kennebunk Board of Selectmen and longtime community volunteer, being on the receiving end of help has been difficult to accept. Just six months ago, he was working full-time as a groundskeeper for resorts in Ogunquit and planning the vacations he and his wife Bobbi Searles would be taking this year.
At 60, and with the last of their six kids out of the nest, Al Searles and his wife had a lot to look forward to. But all that changed in October.
“I was getting ready to go to work, and Bobbi said, ‘You don’t look too good,’” Searles said. “She said, ‘You have two choices. You can either get in the car so I can take you to the hospital, or I call an ambulance.’”
He chose the car ride to Southern Maine Healthcare in Sanford, where doctors discovered Searles’ blood pressure had shot sky high.
Doctors told Searles he was “almost dead,” his kidneys were failing, and he’d need to be brought straight to Maine Medical Center in Portland.
At the Maine Medical Center, Searles saw the head of the nephrology department.
“He told me, ‘We have to put a temporary catheter in your throat, or you’ll die,’” he recalled.
Health problems emerge
Searles knew if he was in kidney failure, he was in big trouble. It was just a decade or so before he found out that he really only had one working, adult kidney. During an ultrasound, doctors discovered one of his kidneys had stopped growing when he was 4 or 5 years old.
It’s not unusual, doctors said. People live their lives with one kidney all the time, they noted.
But now, his one kidney has failed, a result of his out-of-control high blood pressure, doctors told Searles.
And Searles knew he had stopped taking his blood pressure medicine a couple of years ago, after constant dizziness and changing medicines and doses offered no relief.
“My blood pressure to me seemed fine,” he said, “but it wasn’t.”
Searles was told he needed to have dialysis immediately.
“It was like someone telling you you’re going to die right away,” he said.
And so the Searles’ began to live their “new normal.”
Searles had to retire immediately and rely on his wife’s salary and insurance from Huntington Common, where she works in the kitchen. He’d have to go for dialysis three times a week, where his heart would race, and he’d leave so exhausted he could barely function.
And still, there’d be the worry. A kidney transplant could stop the dialysis and mean a return to a more normal life, but Searles isn’t sure that’s an option for him.
“I found out in my early 40s that I have Hepatitis C,” he said, saying how he got it remains a mystery, but doctors can tell he contracted it as a teenager. “So my liver is on the way to being useless.”
Today, Searles is able to do his own dialysis at home, using a machine the size of a small suitcase. The process takes eight hours, and while many patients are able to sleep through the process, that hasn’t been the case for Searles.
“But it’s a pretty nifty scenario and is so much better than going to dialysis,” he said.
The worries continue
While being at home is better for Searles, his illness, the change in the family’s income — he’s still waiting out the six months necessary for social security to kick in — and the mounting medical bills make him worry about how long he and his wife will be able to hang onto their home.
“We made a lot of cuts right away, like to the cable bill, we got rid of the extras,” he said. “We control the heat more, shop more wisely.”
Those vacations they had planned have been whittled down to one camping trip. There just isn’t a way to afford more.
“I promised I’d get to Yankee Stadium this year for [retiring shortstop Derek] Jeter’s last year,” Searles said, “but I doubt that will happen.”
Even Sunday dinners with their six children and four grandchildren have changed. Before, each family would buy the food and host the others each Sunday. Now, the children still visit their parents, but they buy the food.
“As a parent, you don’t like that,” Searles said. “But we’re just barely hanging on here.”
He’s had to put his pride aside and gratefully accept the help from his children, and from the friends and residents who have anonymously mailed him money at home or dropped it off in his box in town hall.
“I couldn’t express how much I appreciate that,” he said. “I’ll find a way to thank everybody.”
And that’s why Searles will be at Saturday’s dinner, where his friends and neighbors will once again come together to take care of one of their own.
“They’ve always got an eye on their neighbors, they always help,” he said.
And that’s made Searles want to share a message with all of Kennebunk.
“I want people in this town to know what a wonderful town this is,” he said. “It speaks a lot to the character in this town that they always help each other. I’ll find a way to thank everybody.’
Searles family benefit dinner
Baked beans and hot dogs, mac and cheese, American Chop Suey, salad, bread, desserts and beverages will be offered 4:30-6:30 p.m. Saturday, March 1, at the Dorothy Stevens Center.
Cost is $7 for adults, $3 for children 5-12 and free for children under 5.
The event is sponsored by the West Kennebunk Village Committee.
For more information, call 604-1303.