Willmar man overcomes addiction; now waiting, praying for new kidney

Robert Riley, of Willmar, (better known as Riley) has been living out his life on a dialysis machine three days a week for the last four years.

He’s on a transplant list, hoping and praying his prayers will be answered and a donor kidney will be found. A match was found at one point; however, something happened, and it fell through.

Robert Riley, of Willmar, who has overcome a drug addiction, is now hoping for a new kidney. Photo by Bev Ahlquist

Riley is pretty excited about the rest of his life. He feels positive a kidney will be located. And he is optomistic about his life going forward. This wasn’t always the case.

His health issues came from his abuse of narcotics. He grew up in California and at an early age found out what meth was, and part of that was because his upbringing as a child wasn’t good. “My father abused me in every which way he possibly could. We finally took him to court, and he was convicted for how he abused me, and he was sentenced to life in prison.”

Riley was 8 years old when his dad left for prison. “At age 12 I experimented with a family member with meth – smoked it, and instantly I fell in love with it. It was the best thing in the whole wide world, and I ran with it. I learned how to make it and was manufacturing meth for a gang that I should not have been a part of but I was.” It was family, he said, and from the age of 16 to 18 he was bouncing here and there to houses, making dope, doing his thing.

At age 18 he was arrested for manufacturing dope. He did 10 years in prison, got out and didn’t know anything else to do, so when he got out, he went right back into making and selling dope. In 2008, his mom died from alcohol and congestive heart failure.

“She was a longtime alcoholic, and I said, ‘I’m coming right with you mom,’ and I tried to OD (overdose). I drank a whole lot of alcohol, smoked a whole bunch of dope, and thought I was going to kill myself.”

He ended up falling in a parking lot and had a stroke. He said when he got home that day he took a shower, got out of the shower and felt weird. He had a friend take him to the hospital. “She dropped me off at the emergency room, but she didn’t want to go in because she was so high.” Riley said he got out of the car and fell in the parking lot, unconscious from a stroke. “My right side is fully numb, I have no feeling – I tried to kill myself but for some reason, it didn’t work. God wasn’t ready for me.”

When he got out of the hospital he went Colorado, and once he got there, he couldn’t urinate. “I couldn’t pee for two days. I went to a club that we had, and there were a bunch of brothers and sisters there, and I said ‘I feel sick but I can’t pee’ so they rushed me to the hospital.” Doctors put a catheter in, and Riley instantly filled up three bags. They ran tests and told him his kidney didn’t look very good. Riley was born with only one working kidney but didn’t know that until he was diagnosed with the disease. “I was born with fetal alcohol syndrome, and they don’t know whether or not that had something to do with only one kidney working.

“They ran a biopsy on my kidney, and the doctor came in the next day, shut the door, walked up to my bed and said ‘Mr. Riley, you’ve got two options….option number one pack all your stuff up, get dressed and go out there and do what you’re doing. You’re not going to make it very long. You’re going to die in a couple months. Or you can get on dialysis and that will help. You have stage 5 kidney failure; your kidney doesn’t work.”

Riley said he had been so high on drugs he didn’t realize his kidney wasn’t working. Riley remembers looking at the doctor and telling him to put him on dialysis for a little while and once that dialysis was up he’d figure out what he should do.

They ended up putting an artificial vein into his upper arm. Riley said it completely drains every ounce of blood in his body, cleans it and puts it back in. It takes about four hours, and he does this three days a week.

Riley said before coming to Willmar he was living in Colorado where a couple had adopted him, but he came to Willmar because of The Fortress. His friend Jack, who he met in treatment in Colorado, came to Willmar first and invited Riley to come. “I came out here, worked at The Fortress for a little while, ended up leaving there. The person I was out here with, we split up. We were done and then I started drinking. I got a little bag of dope and did it in the apartment I used to live in, and I went a week without any dialysis, and it would have killed me if I would have stayed a couple more days.” He ended up at Rice Memorial Hospital, went in for dialysis, thinking he would go to dialysis and be out, but they put him on the mental health ward for three days. It was mandatory, and he couldn’t go anywhere.

“Jack and Cecil, who are with The Fortress, walked into where I was at. Jack looked at me and sat down. Cecil gave me a hug and said ‘Are you ready to come home?’ I said ‘Yes, I’m ready.” They asked if he wanted to come stay at The Fortress. “It was like ‘Aaaaah, I’ll come,’ so I went July 12. I got there, and I cried like a 2-year-old baby, went into my room and cried and asked God ‘Alright if you are who you are and you are who everybody says you are in here, love me like I was your only son, help me out, that’s all I’m going to say, and I cried and I cried and I cried.”

Riley said he went into Cecil’s office and told him he needed help. “He said ‘We’re here for you’ and they started helping. I talked to Jack for a while and told him ‘Bro I’m done. I don’t want to live no more.’ He said ‘No, you’ve got to go to Wednesday church and just give to God.’ I said ‘I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to be in a public place and cry again.’”

Well, he went that Wednesday. He went up to the altar and kneeled down and said ‘God, if this is where you want me to be and do what you want me to do, you’ll show me step by step. But I need help. I need somebody.’” He said they prayed and then left the church. After that he went to Harvest for church every Wednesday.

Riley said he has no problems with wanting to go back to drugs and drinking. Riley said he lived in The Fortress from July 12 to Nov. 27. But before his slip up that summer he had been sober for three years. Riley said that week’s slip could have cost him his life. “It is what it is, and now I’ve got a second chance at life.”

He has high expectations for the future. Riley has four kids. His two oldest live in California with their mom, and his 5 and 6 year olds live with their mom in Costa Rica. “I don’t have any contact with them only because I screwed up, and I told their mothers I needed to have five years of sobriety because I was way out there. At four and a half years I screwed it up on a weekend, but it’s for the better.” When the time is right, he said, God will bring them back into his life.

Riley said once he has his new kidney he wants to devote most of his time toward The Fortress and James Place. “I want to help recovering addicts that are seeking God. In 37 years, I have never had a job at all. My thing has always been drugs, making them and selling them, making the quick, dirty dollar. I might want to try making clean money, being an adult. That’s my goal.”

Riley wants to start a support group at Rice Hospital in Willmar for patients with kidney disease that are currently on dialysis and post- and pre-transplant patients. “You’re on a machine for four hours, and you get off that machine, and there’s nobody there, and I want to be that person that says ‘Hey brother and sister, you have family, get your family, bring your family.”

Riley said he was scared to death when he was told what was wrong with him. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know what kidney disease was about. I didn’t know how they would fix it. I had to re-evaluate my life.”

He added, “I had to decide if I wanted to go through all the crap – getting my kidneys fixed and being on dialysis. I was scared for a long time, and I’m still scared. I’m nervous about having surgery and all that goes with it. It’s a life changer.”

But dialysis is keeping him alive. “I’m scared but very hopeful that a kidney will be found.” He added, “We’ve got to start a group here. I need to be at The Fortress. I need to help those addicts and God and then I’m got Pastor Brent – I love the dude.”