Barbie and Finding True Love When You Are Chronically Ill
by Lori Hartwell

As a little girl, I loved to play with Barbies. I had the Barbie Dream House, the convertible and even the handsome Ken doll. Barbie had no problem getting a date. Since the age of two, I have lived with dialysis, dozens of surgeries, unsuccessful transplants, and constantly being poked and prodded with every medical instrument known to humankind.

Let's face it, I don't look like Barbie and I had trouble relating to the opposite sex romantically. I was damaged goods and my young adult years are riddled with painful memories of dating. I believed I was different, and somehow, my illness made me less desirable. Until I learned how to conquer the damaged goods feeling, I could not move on and pursue what everyone wants in life: to fall in love and have it returned. Once I found true love, I almost chased him away. Prior to meeting and marrying my husband, Dean, I secretly bought into the old line, "I wouldn't want to join any club that would have me as a member." Poor guy, I think of what I put him through in the early stages of our relationship. I told my friends he was dull, uninteresting, predictable. He earned a pretty severe mental berating for the "sin" of wanting to get to know me.

I met Dean at a Toastmasters' meeting. He showed up one night to check out the group, and I happened to be giving a speech about the importance of becoming an organ donor. He began attending meetings regularly. With each session, I noticed Dean maneuvered himself closer and closer, subtly tossing me "I'm interested" vibes. I thought, "What's wrong with this guy? He heard my speech. He knows I have all these medical problems. Why would he want to go out with me?" Eventually, we made a date to play badminton. I have to admit, the sparks weren't exactly flying. See, I was used to riding a stomach-churning roller coaster of insecurity when I was dating someone. I had always been attracted to the ones who played games and didn't call when they said they would. Dean played no games. He made it clear from the start he was interested in me.

Though I reported to my friends the next day that Dean was the King of BOR-RING, the truth was, he scared the hell out of me. You see, I felt comfortable with the game players, despite the self-doubt they dredged up. With them, one thing was guaranteed: I wouldn't have to get too close. I could tell, even on that first date, there was no such guarantee with Dean.

Dean kept on calling and we kept on dating. My feelings for him deepened and I grew even more scared. I was convinced that he didn't "get it." For some reason, he wasn't seeing that I was damaged goods. I truly believed that, because of my illness, a man would always leave. So I tried something new. Rather than pretend the issue wasn't there, I pressed the point.

I sat him down and said, "You know me with a kidney transplant, but tomorrow the reality is, I could be on dialysis again." I gave him all my books on the subject and said, "Read these, and then let me know if you still want to be with me." When Dean came back with the just-read books in his hands, he said, "Okay. If you went back on dialysis, what modality would you choose?" Dean went on to prove his faithfulness the following month when I checked into the hospital with a 104-degree temperature. My doctor feared I might be rejecting the kidney. Dean was there every day, being his solid-as-a-rock self. The kidney and I survived the ordeal, and Dean and I married on May 18, 1997.

Finding love isn't easy for anyone and I know many people are getting through illness without a life partner by your side. You are relying on your parents, your friends and your siblings. These solid relationships are what will help you get through, but what happens when new people enter your circle? When you live with a chronic illness, going out with a new person can be more complex than it is for the rest of the world. Things can grow awkward if you disclose your illness sooner than you are ready. Dating can torturous because of the negative self-esteem that often accompanies illness. And sexuality can get a little dicey: Do I tell him about the catheter after we've started making out or before our first kiss?

So often with chronic illness, it's difficult to detach your sense of self worth from the fact that your body isn't working the way you wish it would. Translate that to dating, and next thing you know, you're ready to marry whoever comes along. Meeting a lot of people helps you realize that your date is just as fortunate to be in your company as you are in his. So don't fret if you don't look like Barbie. There is someone out there for everyone. Love is a numbers game and practice dating will help you be ready when Mr. Right comes along.

Lori Hartwell is a true medical miracle, living with renal disease for thirty years. She underwent dialysis for 12 years and had three kidney transplants. She is author of the inspirational new book “Chronically Happy.” For more information, please email ssandler@newmancom.com.