Tulare kidney disease survivor receives national praise for advocacy, empowerment

Maria Grijalva receives award from the National Kidney Foundation for her dedication to being a voice and educating Valley residents on kidney disease

TULARE –  Thirty-six years ago, a local woman had a kidney transplant and had to educate herself on the entire process. Now, that same woman is being nationally recognized for her longtime continued patient support and advocacy.

On April 13, Tulare resident Maria Elena Grijalva will be honored by the National Kidney Foundation (NKF) at the 2023 Spring Clinical Meetings in Austin, Texas. She will receive the Celeste Castillo Lee Patient Engagement Award, which was established to honor the longtime advocate for patient-centered care and empowerment. Grijalva herself is a patient and has been fighting for people at the greatest risk of kidney disease ever since she received a kidney transplant 36 years ago. Even though Grijalva is the one being honored, she said it is not about her, but the work she does is to support those around her.

“God gave me this healing and I’m running with it,” Grijalva said. “I am out there educating people.”

Each year NKF considers the efforts of advocates and patients who work on behalf of others. They then select an individual who most exemplifies the work of longtime advocate Celeste Castillo Lee. The award is presented to the recipients during one of the nation’s largest and most important annual gatherings of clinicians and kidney health professionals at the NKF 2023 Spring Clinical Meetings. This year, the NFK chose Grijalva to honor who is a kidney patient advocate and operates on a strictly volunteer basis.

“I first met Maria at the 2020 Congressional briefing and was impressed by her dedication to raise awareness of kidney disease in her community, particularly in individuals of Native American and Hispanic backgrounds. She gives so much to others with kidney disease,” NKF president Sylvia Rosas, MD, MSCE said. “It is dedicated volunteers like Maria and their relentless work to improve the lives of people facing kidney disease that provides us the inspiration to continue to do our work.”

Grijalva did not know anything about kidney disease until her own kidneys failed, leading her to need a transplant. Grijalva said when she was sick, there was not a lot of information available for her to learn about her illness. She was unaware of any support groups when she first got sick and had a hard time finding information.

Not only is this week special for Grijalva because she is receiving the award, but April 15 will be her 36th anniversary with the same kidney her brother,  John Arriola, donated to her. Today, the two work together to help others. Maria devotes her efforts to educating Native American people and farmworkers in the agricultural communities in California and raises awareness among high-risk populations about kidney health and kidney disease.

Grijalva called herself her own guinea pig for finding information. After her transplant, she needed guidance and had questions about how she was feeling as a result of the medication. That is when she discovered the support group which would change her path more than she realized. She attended the support group and slowly became more involved. Eventually she took the reins on the whole group and has now been involved for about 30 years.

The group is one the few support groups in the four surrounding counties – Tulare, Kings, Kern and Fresno. Before the pandemic the group was held in person, but now it is held virtually on the second Wednesday of every month. She said it is not about how many individuals come to the support group as long as she is there to help one person that is all that matters.

“I’ve never had as many people every time. It’s either, 80 people in a big conference room, 15 people, 20 people, one, one [person],” Grijalva said. “But you know something? If one person comes to the support group, that person needed help. It’s not about the amount, it’s not about the count.”le every time. It’s either, 80 people in a big conference room, 15 people, 20 people, one, one [person],” Grijalva said. “But you know something? If one person comes to the support group, that person needed help. It’s not about the amount, it’s not about the count.”

Grijalva said she never did anything special except find answers for people’s questions. She brought in doctors and held question and answer sessions and did everything she could for those who needed help. All on her own time. She also took it upon herself to gather information from the NFK and share it at public events. She first popped up at a local function with about 10-20 brochures, pamphlets and informational pieces. She said within the first few hours of the event, her booth was cleaned out.

“I took it upon myself to put up a table at these health fairs, there was nothing out there, and everything on my table was picked up,” Grijalva said. “The need was there. So I attended more of these one time events. That has been my focus.”

To this day she continues to work on a purely volunteer basis showing up at several different locations to share the information with the community. Her goal is to educate people that kidney disease and renal failure is preventable for some and to teach them how to catch it before it is too late. Her focus is speaking up for the Central Valley, because most everything is taken care of in the big cities. She has taken the steps to be a voice for those who cannot speak up themselves.

“Who’s speaking of for the migrant workers? Who’s speaking for the diabetics? Who’s speaking for any disease? I don’t care if it’s cancer or whatever? It doesn’t matter your background, finances or your income. This area is a poor area,” Grijalva said. “Most of the people are diabetic. Most people are MediCal, the MediCaid, they have no insurance except the government insurance.”

The Tulare City Council will also honor Grijalva at their next meeting on Tuesday, April 18.

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