Three times a week, Texan traveler Billy Stoffregen gets dialysis.
Before cancer claimed one kidney and the other one failed five years ago, he was the picture of health and, with wife Juanita, traveled the world in his golden years. What Stoffregen calls "a little bit of gypsying" has taken the couple to every state in the Union and every Canadian province -- and a number of overseas destinations as well. Spain. Norway. Chile. Argentina.
Trim, spry and sharp, he wasn't overweight. He didn't smoke, he didn't drink.
Sometimes he'd come in and his back would hurt. He'd throw a heating pad on it and, in 20 minutes, it felt better. Until one day, it didn't.
"It hurt so I was climbing the walls," he remembered.
A cancerous growth in his left kidney meant removing the organ. Six months later, his remaining kidney gave out. Dialysis was inevitable, but Stoffregen refused to see it as a ball and chain -- or worse, a life sentence.
This is one rolling stone that gathers no moss.
Stoffregen is Ellis County-born and -bred. He was raised in what he calls "the big city of Ike," where his father operated the cotton gin and eventually operated a John Deere dealership in the county seat of Waxahachie.
As a youngster, he attended a one-room school before transferring to Waxahachie schools, graduating in 1946. (His wife-to-be also went to a one-room school -- the one in Nash, which remains active as a community center.) In 1950, Stoffregen received an ag engineering degree from Texas A&M University. By June after graduation, most of his friends from the Aggie Corps were on the way to Korea.
Busted by poor vision, Stoffregen stayed stateside, serving 12 years in the National Guard on reserve and active duty.
After their marriage, Juanita told her husband, "I think I'd like to go to college, too." She attended the University of North Texas and Dallas Baptist University, eventually earning her degree from Texas Woman's University.
Raising daughter Teresa, now an attorney in Edmond, Okla., the pair then went back to school together to get his-and-hers master's degrees from Southern Methodist University. Juanita used her credentials to teach, eventually finishing her career at Northside Elementary in Waxahachie.
After a stint in the auto dealership business at Carlisle Chevrolet in Waxahachie, Billy Stoffregen taught in the vocational department at WISD, eventually finishing his career as director of maintenance for the district.
The Stoffregens were comfortable in retirement, with a small cow-calf operation where they raise 110 black Brangus cattle -- a blend of black Angus and Brahma breeds on just 470 acres in the Howard-Nash area.
"I'm not a cowboy -- I don't try to be. But when you call em up and rattle the bucket, they come, just like 110 pets -- big ones," Stoffregen said.
Their post-retirement travels have taken them around North America.
Of all the states he's visited -- and that's all of them -- Stoffregen enjoyed Alaska the most; he says he could visit "the last frontier" every year. Or maybe Arkansas, where the mountains are "high enough for me" and pretty as Colorado. But then there's California -- "I could stay there forever," he said.
And he loves Canada, recalling with great affection the trip he made from Jasper and Banff all the way to Skagway, Alaska. "Canada is one beautiful nation, from east to west," he said.
He's been to every state, and one of his favorite sites was the home of another gentleman farmer -- George Washington's Mount Vernon.
"I sat on that front porch and thought about what this was like when he got there and how a man got all that together at his age, plus all the other things he did -- surveying, and everything he did to get this country together. I just wonder how in the world he did all that; him and Thomas Jefferson were something else. That fascinated me," Stoffregen said.
"I just love this wonderful country, from end to other, and throw in Canada, too. We're blessed," he said, adding that his favorite part of travel is meeting people from other parts of the globe.
"I love to talk to them, learn about their ways and customs, pick up information. We don't have all the answers -- and they're not that different from the rest of us," he said.
The Stoffregens saw much of the rest of the world -- places like Omaha Beach, where he stood on the hill, pondering the immense military operations of D-Day and the heroism of a fellow Aggie.
"I walked out on Normandy and wondered how Earl Rudder and the Rangers ever climbed it -- he was president of A&M, you know," he said.
Then, five years ago, came the pain in the back that changed travel -- and life -- as Stoffregen knew it.
But when doctors determined Stoffregen would need kidney dialysis three times a week, for 3½ hours each time, for the rest of his life, he decided not to waste time on regrets.
"It ain't no good, but it's sure better than nothing," he said. "In the same breath, I'm thankful. Sure, I detest dialysis. It takes 12 hours out of my week when I'd love to be doing other things -- out with the cows, shooting a gun, walking the pasture. ... Hell, it's no fun -- I don't like it -- but that's the way it is. I don't know why. But I'll do my damnedest to make the most of it."
In the five ensuing years, Stoffregen has been determined not to let dialysis get in the way of his lifelong curiosity about other cultures and other lands.
So what does it take to travel while tethered to dialysis?
"You have to plan, you have to manage a whole lot more with dialysis. You have to set your schedule a whole lot better," he said.
Planning. Big time. Make reservations ahead of time for dialysis. If possible, reserve accommodations close to the dialysis site. There are even dialysis cruises, with providers like www.dialysisatsea.com helping dialysis patients "sea" the world.
"You got to plan all that and they send blood work," he said with a good-natured grumble. "I've moved a whole damn Army battalion a lot easier than this."
But mostly, it's attitude, Stoffregen said, with a few sharp words of encouragement for those who discover their own medical limitations.
"Pull your head up and get with it and live," he said.
On a recent car trip to Harrison, Ark., the Stoffregens floated down the Buffalo River. And he got dialysis in Harrison. Then they went to the beach in Alabama. And he got dialysis there.
From Alabama, it was on to Miami. And Tampa, where he received dialysis.
And then home.
The ultimate test of dialyzed portability came in 2008, when the Stoffregens flew to Rome with their daughter, Teresa, and Billy's brother.
They took in Tuscany and Florence. And dialysis, Italian-style, which turned out to be pretty much the same as dialysis anywhere else -- except instead of a recliner, patients lay in beds.
And even though he didn't speak Italian, getting his needed "dialisi" was no problem, he said.
"That was quite an experience -- wonderful people," he said, recalling the sights he didn't have to forego. "I loved the people, the old ruins, the Coliseum, the Apian Way. I never missed a minute," he said.
Had he known in advance how well the trip would go and that reliable dialysis was so readily available, he would have stayed an additional week, he said.
With almost six decades of marriage under their belts, the Stoffregens are already plotting more travels. But his next trip is somewhat more local -- Bryan-College Station, to meet with other cattle raisers at a beef cattle seminar at his alma mater.
"There'll be people from South Texas, Seminole Indians from Florida -- people from all over," he said.
"I like to go back to Aggieland," he said.