Mike Atkinson tamps down the tropical cutting with enough pressure to secure its footing but gently, so the trunk is not damaged. With each scoop of specially conditioned soil, he coaxes the best out of the fledgling plumeria with an eye toward his reward: showy blossoms best known for their coveted title role in Hawaiian leis.
During the eight-month growing season, Atkinson spends as many as 25 hours a week nurturing his plants—all 500 of them. At his outside workstation, where a sign boasts his unofficial philosophy (“Gardening is cheaper than therapy”) Atkinson diligently balances the correct blend of water, sun, heat and dormancy so that the blooms will voluntarily unleash their intoxicating perfume. As with any garden project, the forerunner of victory is successful rooting by the hands of a master.
It’s a good thing, too, since Atkinson has needed that sense of groundedness—physical and spiritual—as he’s wrestled with life-threatening kidney disease for the past 14 months.
“It’s a very therapeutic exercise for me,” said Atkinson, who shares his passion for gardening with Stacy, his wife of 34 years. “There is an immense amount of satisfaction to help these plants grow larger and stronger, as well as the pleasure of enjoying the amazing array of blooms, sights and smells. It takes a lot of time and energy, which I’ve had less of the last year, but fortunately plumerias love neglect, and I do neglect very well.”
That neglect is a result of Atkinson’s ongoing medical treatments, which has been augmented with a solid dose of faith—a type of faith that transcends the sometimes feeble, sometimes fickle attempts of the human body to heal itself.
Since his January 2014 diagnosis of IgA Nephropathy—described by the Mayo Clinic as a disorder in which antibodies build up in the kidney tissue leading to an inflammation that can inhibit the organ’s ability to filter toxins—the Mount Helix resident has endured numerous treatments, none of which has been able to slow the progression of the disease. One of the regimens was a six-month round of steroid treatments with prednisone.
“It included three treatments of three days each with doses of 1,000 milligrams each day,” he said. “The regular daily dosage was bad enough, but those infusions put me down for a good week or so after each. And in the end the steroid treatment didn’t do anything to help the disease.”
Now in stage four of the disease, Atkinson is just weeks away from outright kidney failure, known as stage five. A test in mid-December showed that Atkinson had just 18 percent of kidney function and was losing nearly 1 percent each month. He will enter the failure stage when his kidney reaches just 15 percent function. Unless he receives a kidney transplant Atkinson will begin home-based peritoneal dialysis, mostly likely within weeks. That process involves nine- to 10-hours of nightly treatment while he sleeps.
“I’m currently going through a raft of tests to qualify for it,” he said of the possible transplant.
Doctors, who discovered the disease after an annual physical, are hopeful that Atkinson—the father of eight and grandfather of soon-to-be five—is a good candidate for a transplant, and he has no shortage of potential donors. Long involved in local youth ministry, Atkinson has nearly 2,400 friends on Facebook, where he has often chronicled his medical journey.
His local ties include working nine years with Cardiff-based Al Menconi Ministries, a dozen years with Youth Specialties in El Cajon and four years as chairman of the board for San Diego Youth for Christ.
“I am blessed in that many people have offered to be donors,” he said. “I am humbled.”
For someone who has been in good health throughout his life, the now 55-year-old Internet marketing manager said the disease has encroached heavily on his lifestyle.
“Some days I just felt like ‘#lifesux,’” he said, slipping into Twitter lingo. “This illness and the related side effects has brought a lot of loss in the last year—energy, mental abilities, strength, activities, fave foods and drinks, and more, and now (I’m) struggling with the realization that I will be kept alive by a machine.”
Despite those struggles, Atkinson said he’s never questioned God about his medical crisis, “not because I’m any kinda SuperSaint, but because I believe in His sovereignty. I live by the motto, ‘Accept the reality. Hope for the Divine.’”
While firmly clinging to God’s sovereignty, Atkinson admits the journey has been “like a roller coaster.”
“Obviously any physical ailments come with their share of emotional struggles,” he said. “Since I’ve never dealt with health problems like this, I’ve run the gamut of emotions.”
Those emotions included an unexpected, and nearly unrecognizable, bout with depression.
“I’ve not had an ounce of depression my entire life, until this last year,” he said. “It took me a while to even figure out what it was. Then when I did, I was depressed about being depressed! Double depression isn’t fun.”
One of the remedies for that, he said, has been his Bible.
“I look at depression in the Old Testament—remember sackcloth and ashes?—and realized we try to stuff these natural, normal emotions,” he said. “In the church we even demonize them. What a shame. This is part of the process of dealing with loss and we can’t rush the process. Embracing that reality has allowed me to walk this path and look forward to what God has for me.”
One of his role models for the journey has been the biblical David.
“I love King David, since he’s a man after God’s own heart,” Atkinson said. “When you read his psalms, you see him yell and wail at the almighty God, and then ultimately fall in the loving arms of his Heavenly Father. He really knew how to process tough stuff; a great model for everyday life.”
Like David, Atkinson has learned to sing a song of gratefulness.
“They say you don’t really appreciate good health until you lose it,” he said. “This process has taught me gratefulness, for the amazing blessings in my life that Lord has gifted me with: An incredible wife who has given everything for me; a large, loving family surrounding me; great friends around the world; an understanding job; and a spectacular church and pastor. I realized how much I took all that for granted before.”
Still, there have been times when fear has impinged upon faith as he wonders what will come next.
“(There’s) a big question mark when looking forward,” he said. “I read an article recently that said everyone gets healed: Medically, divinely or by going ‘home.’ I’m ready for any of those options. An adage like ‘I don’t know the future, but I know Who holds the future’ really becomes real in these situations.”
A particularly humbling lesson, Atkinson said, has been to learn to rely on others for emotional, physical and spiritual support.
“Faith alone can’t always carry you through the deepest valleys,” he said. “We are human after all. You need others who can help and even carry you. That’s so hard for me to accept, but I’ve lived that this last year many times.”
Most of that has come at the hands of his large growing family. Last summer, two of his sons were married and any moment his fifth grandchild will arrive.
“Just being with them is fuel for life,” he said. “Even though my grandkids wear me out, it’s worth every precious ounce of energy. My family’s love and support has carried me many times this past year.”
Even with that, though, he’s had to learn to pace himself.
“They don’t overwhelm me as much as exhaust me,” he said. “It took me a week or so to recover after both weddings. But the benefits of being with my family and sharing life together far outweigh the consequences.
“I’ve also learned that my family was bigger than I thought, with friends, Bible studies, and churches all around the world praying for me. The ‘great cloud of witnesses’ has taken on a whole new meaning. Just blows me away.”
As Atkinson seeks his therapy in the garden, there’s no mistaking the spiritual undertones of his toil in the soil. Just as he patiently creates an environment conducive to healthy growth that will help his plumeria flourish, Atkinson is confident his maker is doing the same.
“He is still God,” he said. “He doesn’t promise us escape from hard times. He promises to be with us, to walk with us through the dark nights of the soul. Good Christians die every day; they lose their homes; they lose their jobs. God is not a magic potion to get us out of life’s challenges. He wants to be our crutch, so we can lean on Him daily.
“Friends have wondered if I get mad at God for not healing me. Umm, sorry but He’s been healing me since the day I accepted His forgiveness 42 years ago! He has healed bad habits, thoughts, behaviors—a mountain of ugliness in me over the years. How can I question how He works in my life now? I am blessed way beyond what I deserve. A few times lately I’ve actually learned to thank God for this illness. He has worked in me more than ever before.”
— by Lori Arnold