Keep Your Head Up

By Maxine Phoenix

Asha J. loves to work on declination letters for the DA’s office. For those of us not familiar with the legal jargon, a declination letter is a polite, professional letter of rejection. There is likely something cathartic about saying “No” to strangers—a source of power. Asha works in the Compton branch of the District Attorney’s office (for now, at least, hoping to transfer to Long Beach where she’s from) and her days are organized by task: typing, answering and transferring calls, forwarding mail, constructing memos, and checking on the status of cases. It’s straightforward until it isn’t, in the moments where she’s answering calls from defendants charged with gun possession asking if they can purchase another—but more on that later. The structure of the position soothes Asha, gives a sense of routine to her life, which has otherwise been a source of chaos. Writing the declination letters acts, in many ways, as a way of reinstating boundaries, on building her strength. Between work and her favorite musicians (Eminem, 50 Cent), Asha knows how to keep herself grounded. The road to this point has been a long one.

Asha and friends Elizabeth and Hannah at the 24th Renal Teen Prom

At thirteen years old, Asha found out she had kidney disease. Her mother had noticed her swollen ankles, puffy face, and thought something seemed off—and, too, that her daughter was having difficulty breathing. Asha’s pediatrician said it could possibly be kidney failure, and so blood tests were ran, labs, anything for the doctors to find the source of the problem. Soon enough, Asha was meeting with her first nephrologist, heading to the ER for more tests, and began her journey with dialysis. Her doctor was right.

The biggest change in Asha’s life, besides starting a dialysis routine, was stopping the karate and basketball practices she grew up with. Her doctors cautioned her to stay away from anything too physical, but she learned with time that she could take up other exercise practices such as aerobics, gentle dance, and rock climbing. Even volleyball was okay in small amounts—but the contact sports, the full-body movement and potential for personal injury that came with karate and basketball had to go. So, too, did the team mentality in her life, something that can be vital for connection and the feeling of unity teenagers need. But that team mentality found a new outlet when Asha she discovered the Renal Teen Prom.

She was sixteen, receiving routine dialysis as her kidneys had failed. At Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, one of Asha’s nurses gave her a flyer for RSN’s prom. Asha recounts, “I took it, looked at it, and said, ‘oh, okay.’ Honestly, I’d never been to any kind of event before this, not in high school or otherwise. I asked my mom if I could go, she said yes, and then I was looking at dresses.” At that first Prom, Asha was overcome with nerves, admitting that she wasn’t sure how to interact with anyone else. Suddenly, she was surrounded by other kids her age, dealing with the same things, and yet—the shyness took over.

Then she met Lori Hartwell. With Lori’s kindness, encouragement, and support, Asha felt as if she could start to come out of her shell. To this date, she’s been to the Prom about seven times. At the 25th back in January 2024, Asha was a beacon of confidence and radiance. The more times she attended the Prom and gathered the energy, love, and support from the kidney community, the more she felt comfortable branching out, talking to people, dancing, connecting. Asha shares that even when she was living in Arizona with her father for a time, she’d travel to California just to see Lori and the friends she’d made through the years. Prom was unmissable.

Asha at the 25th Renal Teen Prom

Originally born and raised in California, Asha split her childhood between two states. During her time in Arizona, she received her transplant—a life-changing event. “It was a few days after my birthday,” she recalls. Nineteen years old, living with her father, in the swing of her dialysis routine, Asha was shocked when all of a sudden, as she was walking into her treatment for the day, a nurse sprinted down the hall, shouting joyfully at her, “Asha, a transplant is available!” There was good news: a kidney had been offered up, healthy, everything aligned. Was she interested? Would she accept? It felt like kismet—Asha’s mom was visiting at the same time, and together, Asha, her mother, and her father were checked into the hospital after hurrying back home and packing a bag. Asha got the transplant the following morning. “It was the biggest, best [birthday] gift ever,” she reflects wistfully. A birthday present from an organ donor. Asha knows little to nothing about the person she received the kidney from, but holds gratitude towards them all these years later. Always.

A few years after her transplant, Asha discovered that she was a type two diabetic. The diagnosis brought back memories of when she was first introduced to the kidney community and all of the requirements, rules, restrictions that came along with it—mainly surrounding food. After having a transplant, Asha thought she was moving away from all that, but suddenly she was back in a similar position, managing foods, portions, ingredients. “Diabetes runs in my family,” she notes, remarking that she wasn’t too surprised by the diagnosis. Mainly frustrated. With medication and an excellent team of doctors, she’s learned to manage both conditions.

Asha and Brenna at the 24th Renal Teen Prom

Before we chat about the other aspects of life—music, romance, future hopes and dreams—Asha shares about a unique situation she found herself in while undergoing dialysis treatment. She had a fistula, instead of a catheter, to manage fluids. Back when she began her dialysis journey, it became clear to Asha and her team of nurses that a catheter would’t work; there was an infection at the site and she was having difficulty sleeping at night, the catheter making her increasingly uncomfortable. After a discussion with her mom, Asha committed to a small surgery that installed a fistula on the bottom of her left arm. It proved helpful, albeit a strange feeling (she can feel it in her arm, even from the outside when she touches it). Once Asha received her transplant, she thought she’d be able to get rid of the fistula. Years later, she still has it in there. Because it’s so deep in her veins, it’s hard to surgically remove. It can be used again if she ever needs dialysis—a transplant is not a cure, though hopefully it will last a long time. Despite the fistula, as with everything else, Asha carries on.

One of the things that has helped her cope through the years is music. Specifically, her two favorite artists: Eminem and 50 Cent. Their music is like scripture to Asha—she recites the lyrics effortlessly, quoting moments, phrases, pieces of the artists’ history embedded in their songs without a moment of hesitation, relating it to her own life. “Many Men” by 50 Cent examines the rapper’s history with violence, being shot fifty times and surviving. Asha revels in the story, recalling an interview between 50 Cent and Oprah from years back where the rapper explains that because of his past, he wasn’t able to find a record deal, until he was signed by Eminem and Dr. Dre. He was given the chance of a lifetime, and proved everyone who’d doubted him wrong. Next, Asha shares about two of her other favorite hits: “Lose Yourself” and “Mockingbird” by Eminem, the former an anthem about not giving up on yourself, and the latter an ode to the artist’s relationship with his daughter and his mother. “Both of them came from a hardcore life,” Asha says of Eminem, 50 Cent. “Seeing where they are now inspires me. It takes a lot of hard work, achievement. They’re proving people wrong.” We’re sensing a theme—an empowering, enduring message. Asha’s cousin got her into music when they were kids, playing the aforementioned artists’ CDs on repeat, as well as others like Ice Cube. The music has always made Asha feel like she could do anything. “I’ve learned to ‘never give up,’ to never doubt myself. And I’ve been through so much. At moments, I felt like I wanted to starve myself—I couldn’t drink a lot of fluids, I couldn’t eat, and I was doubting myself so much. I wanted to give up. But at the end of the day, I’m still here.”

Asha’s boyfriend is another source of comfort and stability. They’ve been together for about two years and love to go to the movies together (recently, they loved Transformers: Rise of the Beasts) and relax, leaning on one another in the tough times. The two met online and talked on the phone for a while before meeting up in person. Her boyfriend told her, back in those early days, “Once I get a job, I’m taking you on a date.” A few weeks later, he did and he followed through—they went to El Torito for dinner, and the romance unfolded from there.

Though she loves her job, Asha is unsure of what the future holds. She’s currently a temp with the DA’s office, so the position isn’t fully secure. “I’m applying for as many jobs as possible in LA county,” she shares, wanting to transition to a permanent employee. Through her position, she’s learned how powerful the justice system is, and she’s inspired to continue working in that world. Making a difference feels good. Asha feels empowered by it. In the past, she worked at Kaiser, at FedEx, all jobs where she was helping, making people’s lives better. She seems drawn to positions that require resilience, facing challenging tasks with a brave heart. Sometimes, working with the DA’s office can bring about some strange situations: recently, a defendant called and Asha answered. The man had been charged for gun possession, though he had been let off, and he asked Asha if he would be able to re-purchase another gun. Asha transferred him to the public defender’s office, quipping, “I couldn’t exactly…give legal advice.”

RSN Founder and President Lori Hartwell shares a moment with Asha at the 24th Renal Teen Prom

The empowerment from her role, from the music, from her family and partner has inspired another dream in Asha, too: a dream to become a model, an actor. I ask her if there are any specific goals in this line of work. “I’m open to anything,” she responds. “TV, commercials, movies—if they say I’m right for the role, I’d love to do it.” Throughout our conversation, Asha maintains a calm, confident energy, proving herself just as measured when talking about her history with kidney disease and diabetes as when she’s talking about her everyday tasks at work.

At the end of our conversation, I ask her what her three words to describe herself would be. Asha takes a beat, but only a beat, and then responds with assurance: “Confident, energetic, and humble.” Between her job, her aspirations, the love for her family, and her uplifting connection to the music world, it rings as true as can be. As we say our goodbyes, Asha returns to work—to continue making a difference, sharing her energy. She shares a piece of wisdom too. “As Tupac says, ‘keep your head up.’ Never look down. I’d tell the youngsters [other members of the kidney community]—you got to keep doing whatever you love. Keep going with it. It’s all going to work out, you never know the outcome.” She repeats a key phrase: “Keep your head up, and keep your eyes open.” Open to new experiences, open to possibility, and to the belief, above all, in yourself.



Maxine Phoenix is a freelance writer and she also volunteers for RSN.

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