Kent couple devoted to each other, even in shadow of disease

Because of Merrill Vesper’s fight against kidney disease, the long hikes he and his wife first took together more than 20 years ago are out. But the city of Kent worker carefully researches hikes he still can take with Mary, his wife of 22 years.

In some respects

In some respects

Because of Merrill Vesper’s fight against kidney disease, the long hikes he and his wife first took together more than 20 years ago are out.

But the city of Kent worker carefully researches hikes he still can take with Mary, his wife of 22 years.

“I try to find something not too difficult,” said Merrill, who tires much quicker because of the disease.

The couple took just such a hike last weekend by Goat Lake up near Mount Rainier.

“He had plotted it out,” Mary said. “It took us five hours to go 2 1/2 miles. But he did it.”

Merrill would like to do more activities, but it’s a challenge with his schedule.

After Vesper, 59, completes his 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. shift as a senior project engineer for the Kent Public Works Department, he drives to the Auburn Kidney Center each Tuesday and Thursday for nearly five hours of dialysis. Merrill, who has worked 35 years with the city, also drives to the kidney center for dialysis on Sundays from their Auburn home.

It’s been his routine for five consecutive years.

“It works all right for me as long as I can go in the evenings,” said Merill, in a recent interview at a conference room in the city’s Centennial Building.

Merill continues to work full-time despite the disease. He began dialysis at age 44, and received a kidney transplant in 1996. That transplant failed after six years, so he returned to dialysis. Now he’s waiting for a second kidney transplant.

Tough for both Vespers

“It’s extremely long days,” said Mary, 61, in a recent phone interview. “He gets home late at night and he’s hungry and tired.”

Mary noted she often gets asked how her husband handles a full schedule of 40-hour work weeks along with the steady dialysis.

“I tell them he’s a courageous man,” Mary said. “He looks at it as a medical condition and not a disability.”

The relationship between Merrill and Mary continues to grow stronger as they fight his kidney disease together.

The couple met through a Seattle Weekly newspaper personal advertisement.

Merrill placed the ad.

Mary responded with a letter.

“When she sent in her letter, it didn’t say much at all,” Merrill said. “But I decided to give calling her a try. I called her up, we talked and I was quite ex-to meet her. Everything went good, we got together a couple of more times and pretty soon it got more serious.”

Now married for 22 years with one adult son, Merrill and Mary work as partners in the fight against his disease.

“She always visits the doctors with me and has learned things about the disease,” Merrill said. “She’s there with me to talk things over with the doctors.”

During a recent doctor visit, Merrill complained _ something he rarely does _ that his body seemed more sore than normal. The doctor knew that despite the disease, Merrill prefers to do many of the household chores.

“Mary could mow the lawn,” the doctor told the couple.

Pushing for the summit

An avid mountain climber, Mary Vesper stays plenty busy. Since she took up mountain climbing seven years ago, she has climbed 11 mountains, including Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Hood, Mount Baker and Mount St. Helens.

The couple agreed long ago to support each other’s activities, even if the other partner prefers to do something else. In addition to summiting mountains, Mary likes to rock-climb, roller skate and garden. Merrill likes to restore his two Dodge cars from the 1930s, as well as to collect coins and guns.

“I thought it would be good for her because she likes to do hiking,” Merrill said, of supporting his wife’s decision to take up mountain and rock climbing. “I’ve never done any of that.”

Mary even climbs up onto the roof of the house to clean the gutters. She also ferries her husband to appointments if he feels too tired to drive, even though she doesn’t like to drive.

“She’s always supported me,” Merrill said.

Honored for his work

Merrill Vesper changed his routine and treatment schedule on Aug. 5, so he could receive the City Employee of the Month award at the Kent City Council meeting.

“I was sort of surprised, but kind of pleased,” Vesper said of the honor.

Kent residents rather than fellow workers nominated Vesper for the Employee of the Month award. West Hill residents nominated Vesper because of his hard work to always provide them with documents, coordinate meetings with city staff and make them feel like their voices were heard regarding whether to form a local improvement district to build sewers.

“They decided not to move ahead with the project so I guess they were happy,” Vesper said. “One lady was always asking me questions through e-mails and meetings and I always responded to her. It’s nice to be recognized that way.”

It didn’t surprise Mary that her husband received the award.

“If anybody should get it, he should,” she said. “He has the patience of Job.”

The fact the nomination came from residents made the award even more special.

“He’s kind of the unsung hero,” Mary said.

A history with the city

Merrill Vesper started work with the city in 1972. He applied for a drafting job, but ended up working as a junior engineer. He earned a civil engineering degree from the University of Washington and worked for a few months as a temporary engineer for a private consultant before taking the city job.

“It just seemed to work out,” Vesper said of his 35 years with the city. “There’s always work to do, so there’s job security.”

As a senior project engineer, Vesper reviews plans done by others for new streets, sewers or buildings before the city puts the projects out to bid.

“I’ve always liked the variety,” Vesper said.

Merrill Vesper, who grew up in Tukwila, found out in his 20s that he had inherited kidney disease from his mother. Problems with his kidneys started in his 40s. He began dialysis at age 44.

After two years on a transplant waiting list, Vesper received a kidney transplant in 1996. But when it failed, Vesper was back on dialysis routine.

“People think once you get a transplant you’re set,” Mary said. “But there’s a shelf life. We did not realize that fully.”

Vesper has waited three years for a second transplant. Doctors told him they could not give him any time estimate about how long he might have to wait.

Nearly 77,000 people in the United States are on the waiting list for kidney transplants, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing Web site, There were more than 16,000 kidney transplants in 2007, about 10,000 from deceased donors and 6,000 from living donors.

The Vespers checked out whether Mary could be a donor, but she did not have a strong enough match.

In addition to the dialysis, Merrill must closely watch his diet because of the numerous restrictions to anyone with kidney disease.

“He loves to eat fruits and veggies, but he has to have a limited amount,” Mary said.

Despite the kidney disease and his many years with the city, Vesper said he has no plans to retire.

That continues to be a good decision for the city.

“He’s a dedicated employee,” Mary said. “He’s extremely loyal to the city.”

And the strong relationship between the couple goes on.

“She supports me and the things I do even if it’s things she’s not interested in,” Merrill said. “And I support her in doing her things.”

But when Merrill has the energy, he will find a hike to they can take together, such as last weekend near Mount Rainier.

“You could really see the mountain,” Merrill said. “I try to get out, even though I’m slow.”

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