In Memoriam: Winnie Tapper

“Be the best that you can be. Make your life count,”was the motto of Winifred “Winnie” Yuri Tapper, who passed away on February 4, 2015, at the age of 70. She was perhaps one of the longest surviving patients on continuous hemodialysis, having undergone the procedure for more than 40 years. A memorial service was held on March 7, 2015.

Born in Hawaii on May 18, 1944, Winnie was of Japanese descent. Owing to her father’s job transfer in 1949, the family moved to California, where she spent the remainder of her childhood. She attended California State University, Northridge, and the University of California, Los Angeles, where she studied psychology and later discovered a love for teaching children. She worked as a kindergarten teacher for 31 years.

Her extraordinary story began in 1972, when at the age of 27, Winnie learned she had gone into kidney failure. Her doctors believed a serious strep infection that attacked her kidneys may have been the cause. At the time, kidney dialysis was still in its infancy, and Winnie had not even heard of the procedure. Nevertheless, she found she qualified for treatment. Because she did not want to stop teaching, her doctors agreed to train her to perform dialysis at home.

“She was smart and determined,” said Marc Tapper, her long-time friend and husband at the time, who was also trained to be her assistant. “She was ready to roll with a very positive attitude.”

Despite this, Winnie’s best friend, Sachi Stark, wrote that her first year on dialysis was “filled with much anxiety and a lot of tears.” However, with perseverance and determination, she became stronger and stronger, and even was able to maintain her teaching schedule while undergoing dialysis after school three times a week.

Over time, Winnie was able to see a significant change in the way dialysis was performed. Early dialysis sessions lasted eight hours, but over the course of her many years of treatment, the time was reduced to three hours per session. “They have greatly improved the process,” she told the Ventura County Star in 2013 for the 40th anniversary of her continuous hemodialysis treatment. The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) also gave her a certificate for that milestone. NKF reported it knew of no one else in the country who had achieved that record.

Winnie had considered a kidney transplant at one point and was placed on the transplant waiting list, but ultimately decided against it.

Although dialysis was a large part of her life, Winnie was still able to enjoy her favorite things, such as the arts, outdoor activities, and traveling, by making arrangements in advance for treatments. “People feel that they have to give up the things they love, but you don’t have to stop your life,” she told the Ventura County Star. “You just have to make different arrangements.