Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Jenn!

I wasn’t an athlete all my life: I couldn’t finish the mile during the fitness test in high school. But in my senior year of high school, I joined the dance team and decided that I liked fitness if I did it my way. I also rowed during my senior year and started my freshman year at the University of Michigan on the rowing team. But the early practices led me to find my own way, and I quit the team early in the semester to do some basic fitness courses and running on the treadmill. I really enjoyed this running, and two years later, I completed my first marathon. It was only after Achilles repair in 2013 that I stopped marathoning, learned to swim and put all of my energy towards triathlon. I could still run, but just not as far.

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I fell in love with triathlon, and it still drives me every day. Before my dad got sick, I had run a few half ironman triathlons and several Olympic and sprint distances (with duathlons and aquabikes throw in, too!). Multisport was my lifestyle. My dad did it, too: he walked marathons (10 of them!) while I ran, and we were the first father-daughter team to compete together at Duathlon Worlds in 2010.

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But my dad got sick in May 2016: while trying to get the cat out from under the bed, he stubbed his thumb. His thumb got infected and it became sepsis, a blood infection. The sepsis was destructive, and it caused him to have to have an open heart surgery in October 2016 to have his aortic valve replaced. We thought everything was fine after that, but soon, he started passing out after showers and having uncontrollable blood pressure. By Thanksgiving, his kidneys were failing. We found out that he was suffering from a very rare (1 in a million!) autoimmune disease called anti-GBM, or Goodpasture’s disease. This attacks your kidneys and often your lungs (we were lucky in that respect, as he had no pulmonary involvement). By December, he had gone through a round of chemo and was on dialysis.

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Immediately I knew that I wanted to donate my kidney to him, but he was hesitant because he didn’t know the risks to me and didn’t want to cause me problems in the future. But 6 months of dialysis and the doctor’s assurances that my life would not be negatively affected convinced him that I could go ahead and get tested. It was a stressful process for me because I wanted to give so badly, and I had to do the tests a few separate times because my hard workouts were messing up the results (I was training for aquabike Nationals at the time). There weren’t a lot of resources on athlete outcomes after these surgeries, but what I did find looked encouraging. After a few orthopedic surgeries, I have always been convinced that if you want it bad enough, you can make it happen.

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I was a perfect match for my dad, and on December 11th, 2017, we had the transplant at Mayo Clinic.

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I felt like crap for the first month or so, but already within the first two weeks, I was doing some walking/jogging intervals (I started walking the second day already, about 4 miles a day). I also started riding my bike easily, but I never lifted more than 10 pounds or did anything anaerobic until week 8. I didn’t really feel fully myself, I think, until about week 10 (and even then the incision is still sore sometimes and is full of scar tissue), but by week 14 (end of March), I was well enough to compete in a half ironman in Florida. I was conservative, walking through all of the aid stations, but I still came in 3rd overall female. That gave me confidence that I could really *race* that same summer.

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And race I did. I won my first Olympic distance race in May, and then another one in July. I PRed several times over the course of the summer in races I didn’t win and competed at Triathlon Nationals in August. It was a great summer, and I really think the rest after the surgery helped me to recover and be ready for a big season. I try to be more conscious about hydrating during and after my workouts, but now (about 10 months out), nothing is really different, besides my level of gratitude for being able to help my dad and do a sport I really love every day.

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I really believe that the fitness I built up over the years made my kidney a warrior for my dad. And I’m still plugging along as the same athlete—even better!—than I was before. I would encourage everyone to look into organ donation, especially athletes: the work you have done can be put to a better cause, and you can be a better person—and athlete—because of it! It’s a win for everyone.

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