For as far back as she can remember, Tammy Edwards has been singing with her sisters. The Greenville, North Carolina native and her siblings (Tonette and Tonia), as well as her daughter (Tina) and niece (Taliah) presently, are part of the gospel group Tammy Edwards and The Edwards Sisters. While Tammy and her family have been professionally performing (including on the popular BET series Bobby Jones Gospel) and releasing albums for more than 30 years, her memories go back much further.
“I have a picture where I was eight years old,” the 53-year-old lead vocalist said fondly. “We took that photo as a group and my baby sister was four at the time, so it’s been that long.”
When Tammy and her sisters aren’t aren’t touring, bringing down the house in cities around the U.S., she, along with their mother, Diana, are trying to get a hold of their issues with chronic kidney disease. Tammy was diagnosed in 2015 and alongside her mom, does home dialysis four times a week because both women have kidney failure. That is the final stage of chronic kidney disease.
Two of her other sisters have had CKD, including sister Tonette and one other sister named Tina, who passed away from it in the ’90s.
“All of us have high blood pressure, hypertension,” she said. “All of us have that and that’s what took all of our kidneys out.”
Tammy said that chronic kidney disease was even a struggle for her grandmother before it affected her mother and siblings. For herself and Diana, dialysis is the only thing that can support their kidneys right now. Tammy was referred for the wait list of people seeking a kidney transplant last year and is hopeful that a miracle will happen.
“As far as our kidneys are concerned, unless we get a transplant, this is the way we have to go right now — unless there’s a miracle,” she said. “Unless something happens like that, it’s dialysis.”
One of Tammy’s sisters, Tonette, was able to get successfully get a transplant two years ago after waiting a whole 10 years on the list. Her other sister Tonia has high blood pressure, but her kidneys aren’t nearly as impacted. Both women have stepped up to help Tammy and their mother.
“We work together around here,” she said. “Before I was sick, I did it for my mom and for my sisters and then the tables turned.”
Mom Diana was close to being able to have the same happy ending as Tonette, but unfortunately, after two kidneys put into her body failed, she’s been back on dialysis since 2011.
“The kidneys were infected,” Tammy said of her mother’s situation. “They didn’t really think they would mess up like they did, but her kidneys didn’t last a year.”
Knowing all they’ve had to deal with due to chronic kidney disease and full-blown kidney failure, Tammy, her mom and her sisters have tried to encourage their family members to be proactive about taking care of their health since this disease runs in the family.
“We tell them it’s never too late change. It’s never too late to do better and start working on yourself with your family,” she said. “You don’t want to be on a machine every day. You want to be able to eat the foods you want to eat, drink the drinks you want to drink. Just be normal.”
The sisters have also used their platform, which is the stage, to let other Black people know that they are more likely to face kidney failure, so they need to take precautions ASAP to stop any damage from getting worse. That can be done by maintaining a healthy weight, having a low-fat and low-salt diet, keeping blood pressure healthy, controlling blood sugar and more.
“A lot of African-American people don’t really go to the doctor as much as they should, and the thing is, we wait until the last minute and things really could have been looked at before then and maybe something could have helped,” she said. “So we go on and let people know, start taking care of your body. Take care of your kidneys, your blood pressure, make sure diabetes is not a problem. Go to the doctor and make sure what’s going on is taken care of.”
Living with CKD has forced Tammy, specifically, to take charge of her health in the ways that she can control. She watches what she eats and drinks now because treats with a lot of fluid in them impact her kidneys, leaving her short of breath and feeling heavy. She’s also currently working to get her weight down. It’s not easy, but it works. She doesn’t want people to assume that there’s nothing that can be done when you have kidney failure.
“It’s not a death sentence if your kidneys do fail. We’re still here. We’re standing up here every single weekend in somebody’s city, somebody’s town, after doing dialysis all week,” she said. “We go out during the weekend and minister, let people know we’re living still and things can work out.”
They’re able to do that because of their faith, because the Edwards sisters have each other as a family, and because of the support they get from fans.
“We as sisters, as a group, as a family, we hold onto each other as well. We’re here to encourage each other,” she said. “If I’m crying and hurting, they’re here to lift me up. We lift each other up and let each other know, it’s not the end of the world. We will make it through that day and this too shall pass.”
“And being on the stage is really what helps us more than anything because we’re able to get out our frustrations and hurt and pain through songs and just by looking at people smile,” she added. “We’re seeing people being blessed by what we’re saying and that makes a world of difference.”