Extraordinary stamina inspired others

By Andrew Meacham, Times Staff Writer
Published February 19, 2008

For 37 years, Phillippe Smith followed a routine no one would envy: one intravenous line carrying blood from her arm to a dialysis machine; a line carrying the clean blood back to her body.

She followed this routine each Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., from 1970 until her death on Friday at age 62.

"What Ms. Smith has done is truly remarkable," said Dr. Stephen Rifkin, a Tampa kidney specialist. "There are only a handful of people in the United States and Europe who have lived so long while functioning on hemodialysis."

Ms. Smith learned of her condition when she was 18 and attending the University of Florida. After a biopsy, physician Robert Cade who would later invent Gatorade told her that her kidneys had lost their filtering ability. By 1970, her kidneys did not function at all.

No problem, said husband Hugh Smith, who had served as a medic in Vietnam and wanted to play an active role in his wife's care. The couple used a home dialysis machine the size of a refrigerator.

Ms. Smith's adaptability was already a story in 1983, when a St. Petersburg Times reporter asked her why she would rather put up with time-consuming dialysis treatments than try to secure a kidney transplant.

"What's time?" Ms. Smith replied. "I've had 13 years I wouldn't normally have had. As long as I feel good on dialysis, why should I risk my life and my health?"

In that same story, Ms. Smith did not blame the end of her 15-year marriage to Hugh on the dialysis, but acknowledged that stresses caused by her health contributed to the breakup.

Despite her dialysis schedule, Ms. Smith joined Liberty Christian School in 1976 as a teacher. In the classroom and at home, Ms. Smith commanded respect with her strong voice and attention to punctuality. "There was never a 'no' or 'can't' in her vocabulary," said her son, Landon, who remembers his mother as loyal to her convictions and her chosen way of life. She retired in 1994 as the school's principal.

Ms. Smith never complained or viewed herself as a victim, her son said. In 1990, she met another dialysis patient, Marc DeMaio, and love grew.

For decades, Ms. Smith wrote letters to family members about how she had lived a fulfilling life. "She never wanted anyone, least of all herself, to take one day on this earth for granted," Landon Smith said. He has at least a half-dozen with instructions that they not be read until after her death.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at ameacham@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2431.


Phillippe C. Smith

Born: July 29, 1945

Died: Feb. 15, 2008

Survivors: Her son, Landon (Temple); her companion of 17 years, Marc DeMaio; her mother, Emolyn Rocchio; her sister, Irene Cohen (Michael), extended family members.

Services: 11 a.m. Saturday, Memorial Park Funeral Home, 5750 49th St. N.