With the start of the school year this week, Salem High’s Ben Ruback was eager to step back into the classroom as a full-time chemistry teacher.
After teaching biology and chemistry three days per week during his first two years in the district, Ruback, 27, is ready to boost the connection with his students as a full-time teacher, he said.
But there is one thing that sets this passionate science instructor apart from others: Ruback does not have kidneys.
Diagnosed at age 5, Ruback has focal segmental glomerulosclerosis , a rare disease that causes inefficient filtering of wastes from the blood.
Despite his battle, Ruback has managed to convert his medical struggles into a classroom lesson at Salem High School. He not only intertwines the science of his disease with the curriculum, he also teaches his students a crucial life lesson about overcoming obstacles that come their way.
“It’s certainly the case that every high schooler has their own challenges,” Ruback said. “I didn’t mind sharing some of what mine were.”
Ruback had both kidneys removed when he was in the fourth grade. The disease destroyed a transplanted kidney he received from his father the following year, and by sixth grade Ruback was left without the organs. He has not attempted another transplant since.
Without kidneys, Ruback relies on a home dialysis machine to keep him alive. He conducts treatment five days per week for about four hours at a time.
The machine weighs about 70 pounds and was created by NxStage Medical Inc. , a Lawrence company that works to improve renal care through innovative technology.
The dialysis machine removes waste and excess water from the blood, and is used as a replacement for lost kidney function in people with renal failure.
For every treatment, Ruback puts two large needles in his fistula, a surgically created passageway in his upper right arm. One needle is for bringing blood out of his body and the other is for returning it. Pumps in the machine draw blood and circulate it through the system, where it is cleaned by the filter and special fluid. After it is cleaned and excess fluid is removed, it goes back into his body.
Ruback said home dialysis creates more flexibility in his schedule because he does not have to commute to a treatment center.
In addition, Ruback said, there is less buildup of fluid in his body because at home, he can conduct treatments more often. The more liquid buildup there is, the more “puffy and weighed down” he feels.
But Ruback said he refuses to let the disease define him.
“He [Ruback] considers himself a student, now a teacher, a friend, or a son, who happens to be on dialysis,” said Ruback’s mother, Elaine. “He keeps it as a part of his life, rather than a prime focus on his life. He has his activities, his friends. That’s just how he is.”
Ruback currently lives in Boston. His favorite city activity is walking his 13-year-old dog Razzle down Commonwealth Avenue, and taking her with him to get coffee at Wired Puppy on Newbury Street. If there is time, he lingers to read the newspaper.
Ruback said he follows Boston sports teams and enjoys catching a Red Sox or Celtics game.
When in the classroom, he opens up to his students with the purpose of providing them with an educational benefit.
“Dialysis really does take advantage of a lot of the principles of chemistry and physics in terms of the movement of water, the movement of different toxins based on concentration gradients,” Ruback said. “It’s always nice to provide a real world context, especially in science . . . because a lot of students struggle with understanding abstract things like atoms and molecules that they’ll never be able to see in real life.”
Not only do students who tend to disengage suddenly sit attentively and listen when Ruback connects his struggles with the study of chemistry, but they learn even more through his example of hard work and dedication.
Even when he is in the hospital because of a complication with his dialysis, Ruback will e-mail assignments and quizzes from his bed, said Julie Kim, head teacher of the science department at Salem High.
“Even if they don’t quite say it, it’s powerful for them to see someone who isn’t perfect that has issues that are bigger than him, but still is working hard and being a productive member of society,” Kim said. “I think the life lesson resonates stronger with the kids, and with the staff also.”
Last year when Ruback was in the hospital, his students grew concerned and decorated and signed a “get well” card for him.
Ruback said he might entertain the idea of another kidney transplant in the future, but for now he will stick to home dialysis and focus on the upcoming school year.
“I’m excited,” he said. “It will be nice to have all my students pass, and [for me] not to end up in the hospital.”