‘Her spirit is just unbreakable’


At age 11, Acacia Walter-Rooks learned she had kidney disease. She would need a transplant to survive.

But you can still achieve your dreams, said her kidney specialist, Julia Steinke, MD.

You will still be able to play sports and pursue your goals. You will graduate from high school one day, Dr. Steinke assured her.

Seven years later, on a sunny summer evening, Acacia donned a cap and gown and walked in her high school graduation ceremony—fulfilling those rosy predictions.

And there, amid her cheering family and friends, stood two special guests chosen by Acacia to witness this moment: Dr. Steinke and dietitian Tracy Howell.

Both were key players on the medical team at Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital who saw Acacia through the trials of kidney disease, including a kidney transplant at age 14.

“I love them. They are absolutely amazing,” Acacia said. “I feel like I would not have graduated from high school without them.”

A journey with Katniss

Acacia, now 18, did not follow an easy path toward graduation.

When she became sick, Dr. Steinke told her she had a rare kidney disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which scars and damages the kidneys’ filtering units.

By age 14, Acacia began receiving dialysis three times a week as her kidneys failed.

A flood of donors from the community volunteered to give her a kidney. Beth Hill, a mother of four and a friend from church, passed the tests to become the donor.

In a transplant surgery on April 19, 2016, Acacia received her new kidney—which she named Katniss, after the hero of the “Hunger Games” trilogy.

In the four years since that day, Acacia has continued to see her medical team regularly—either weekly or monthly, depending on her health—and to take medication.

She has also enjoyed an active, busy life at East Grand Rapids High School. She played volleyball, soccer and tennis. She attended homecoming dances and prom.

She endured a tough medical challenge last fall, when her body began to reject her kidney. She missed much of her senior year as she underwent treatment.

“She has a strong kidney,” her mom, Brie Walter, said. “That episode of rejection was hard, but she recovered from it.”

By the time Acacia felt healthy enough to return to school, however, in-person classes had been canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet despite the challenges, Acacia completed all her academic requirements to graduate with her class.

“She is an amazing human being,” Dr. Steinke said. “She has been through so much in her life and has really defeated the odds.”

And through it all, Acacia impressed her medical team and family with her determination and optimism.

“She has the best attitude of anyone I have ever met in my life,” Brie said. “She finds something to be joyful about no matter how hard the situation is.

“Her spirit is just unbreakable.”

For Acacia, her positive attitude comes in large part from her family—including her dad, Ryan Rooks and his wife, Rachel, her older sister, Mica, and her mom and her wife, Bekah—as well as her friends and medical team.

A diploma for Acacia

For graduation, East Grand Rapids High School held an outdoor ceremony with lots of space for social distancing. The students could choose someone important to hand them their diplomas.

Acacia’s first reaction: Call Dr. J.

“When she asked me if I would walk with her and give her the diploma, I was just floored,” Dr. Steinke said. “I was so honored.”

She immediately agreed to be there. But on graduation day, Aug. 6, 2020, Dr. Steinke felt the scratchy throat of a possible cold.

She contacted Tracy Howell, who no longer works at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, and asked if she would deliver the diploma to Acacia.

Tracy agreed, and Acacia was thrilled. During the toughest days of kidney disease, when she was on dialysis, Tracy helped her cope with severe restrictions on her diet.

“She would always come visit me when I was in the hospital or on dialysis,” she said.

Tracy walked Acacia across the field and handed her the diploma.

Dr. Steinke, watching from afar and wearing a mask, beamed with pride as Acacia graduated. Dr. Steinke had taken a COVID-19 test that morning—and the result came back negative that night.

Choosing a career

Next up for Acacia: She will attend Calvin University in the fall. She and her older sister, Micah, will share a suite in the dorm.

Acacia is mulling her career choices. She might study business or communications. Or she might become a pediatric nurse—and follow in the footsteps of the many nurses she admires at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.

“Definitely if I were to be a pediatric nurse, I feel I could connect with the kids in the hospital,” she said. “I think it would make them feel more comfortable knowing one of their care providers went through something similar to what they are going through.”

She plans to play tennis for Calvin—if the season is not canceled because of COVID-19.

With the transition to college, Acacia said she is nervous and excited.

“It will be new and exciting having all that freedom,” she said. “But, also, you don’t have anyone there to keep you accountable about things.”

She hopes the life lessons she learned as she faced kidney disease will help her face the challenges ahead.

“I feel like now I can really just go through anything,” she said. “With any challenge that comes my way, I know I can get through it because I’ve gotten through this.”

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