by Hannah Saulters
“There are two things I hate,” Gail Sweat says as she makes her way past boxes of T-shirts and stacks of fliers before sitting behind a crowded desk, “public speaking and asking for money.”
It’s ironic then that this is exactly how she spends her days as executive director of the Mississippi Kidney Foundation. She speaks with excitement and insight about the foundation, where she has worked for the past 20 years. Clearly, this is not someone who works 9-5.
“I started here as the associate director, just part-time, but I’m not very good at part-time,” Sweat confesses. Before entering the non-profit world, Sweat, a graduate of Murrah High School and Millsaps College, was active in Jackson Public Schools, first as a teacher and later as a mother, serving on multiple PTAs in the area. She was volunteering at several places when Mayor Kane Ditto approached her with a job opportunity.
“He needed a party girl,” Sweat explains, “someone to plan 100 campaign parties across the city.” This connection led Kane to recommend her for associate director and later, executive director of the Mississippi Kidney Foundation.
Within this role, Sweat manages 80 dialysis units across the state, working closely with the social workers and dieticians on staff. The Foundation focuses on educating the public and raising awareness about kidney disease, an affliction that affects Jacksonians at a 26 percent higher prevalence than the national average, with African Americans having a disproportionately higher risk than other groups.
“Not that any disease is glamorous, but kidney disease is just not a real popular disease,” Sweat says. Armed with this knowledge, Sweat and the members of the foundation have created engaging promotional materials: calendars filled with testimonials and healthy recipes, celebrity PSAs and “I’m a Kidney Fan” fans. “People will throw away a brochure, but they won’t throw away a fan because they’re so useful!”
In addition to outreach efforts, Sweat attends health fairs around the state. The foundation recently received grants from the Bower Foundation and Wal-Mart to facilitate more free public screenings for at risk groups. “Instead of having a carload of equipment, we have a little bag.” Previously, a screening involved hiring phlebotomists, hauling equipment, drawing blood, and shipping it out for testing before mailing results to patients. Now, with one hand-held device, they can test blood from a finger prick and provide results instantly.
In addition to her work fundraising and educating, Sweat spends a lot of her day writing checks, “because we help people with gas, utilities, medication, and food.” Sweat estimates that she receives 15 faxes per day from social workers.
“A lot of the patients are very poor,” Sweat says, acknowledging that kidney disease is often the result of systemic factors that contribute to higher health risks. Each year the foundation spends almost $200,000 on patient emergency assistance. But sometimes emergency assistance isn’t monetary. “A lady just called me and asked, ‘How long am I going to be on dialysis?’” Sweat shares, “and I hated to be the one to tell her that she would probably have to be on dialysis forever.”
All these support systems are possible through the active involvement of 55 board members, including twelve doctors. Perhaps most remarkable is that every penny raised by the foundation stays right here in Mississippi. And the state is certainly better for it.
To learn more about kidney disease or to set up a screening in your community, visit kidneyms.org.