I donated a kidney on Sept 11, 2018, at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
My recipient was an acquaintance that lives in Baltimore with Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD), a hereditary condition. Her only sibling and only daughter also inherited PKD so need donors as well. Her husband had a recurring cancer diagnosis that eliminated him from donating. I had honestly never considered donating my kidney until I found out that all of her 4 other potential donors were also screened out for health issues. Since I’m totally healthy, I decided to add my name to her donor list. I live in Denver but decided that if I was a match, I’d donate at Hopkins to be near the recipient. I found out during the testing process that being a “match” is no longer a requirement. With an O-positive blood type, I’m a universal donor so as long as the recipient didn’t have the antibodies (she didn’t), I could donate if I passed all of the health screening tests.
Early in the screening process, I was notified that I couldn’t donate due to an osteoporosis diagnosis included as part of my medical record review. I couldn’t find any research about the increased risk to donors with osteoporosis so I got an appointment with a local renal specialist studying bone mineral loss. After some additional blood work (looking at bone turnover markers), the specialist confirmed that my bones were strong and I didn’t require any medication or treatment. When the results were reviewed by the Johns Hopkins’ team of nephrologists, I was cleared for additional testing.
I’m a post-menopausal 57-year old endurance athlete, having trained and raced competitively since 1984. I raced in college and was a sponsored marathon runner for 10 years after graduating. I’ve raced in dozens of marathons and triathlons including age group podium finishes in full Ironman races (2012 Wisconsin IM, 2014 Boulder IM, 2017 Whistler IM) all since I turned 50. I’ve never taken any medications and very rarely use NSAIDs or any pain relievers. One of the added benefits of being a kidney donor is FREE health screenings. My primary care doctor has been writing prescriptions for my osteoporosis for several years (that I’ve ignored). As an elite college athlete, I was part of several studies on amenorrhea and low bone density back in the 1980-90s. I’ve been diagnosed with osteopenia since I was in my early 20s. Turns out that most elite distance runners naturally have light bones and almost all fall into the osteoporosis range for bone density tests after menopause. Light bones make it easier to run fast, right? Through the kidney donor screening process, I learned that an osteoporosis diagnosis doesn’t mean a higher risk of fracture and I don’t need medication!
My only hesitation as a donor was the risk of having to give up my extreme endurance lifestyle. I retired in 2017 as an executive in a large corporation after a 33-year career that required frequent travel and long work hours. Since retirement, I started coaching and training full-time doing what I love, training for triathlons, doing yoga and running on trails in the Colorado mountains.
Here’s a photo one week before surgery running up Ptarmigan Peak, one of my favorite Colorado trails.
In the initial consultation, I was told by my surgeon (also a triathlete) that I shouldn’t do any exercise other than walking for 6 weeks post-surgery to avoid hernia risk. I was shocked! I’ve never gone that long without exercising. According to my running logs, I started running 10 days after my C-section and won overall in a 10-mile race 3 weeks later. My biggest concern going into surgery was how I’d physically and mentally handle not training for that long!
I worked with my recipient to schedule the surgery at the end of my 2018 triathlon season. I trained hard to be as fit as possible during my racing season (June-Sept). I won my age group in the Pikes Peak Ascent and each of the 6 triathlons races (Sprint to 70.3) this season. I also pushed myself through several challenging Colorado bike events (Triple Bypass in July, Copper Triangle in Aug and the Red Rocks Extreme Challenge BEAST on Sept 8). The BEAST ride was definitely the most difficult with 130 miles and 13K vertical but I pushed through the ride hoping to be so exhausted prior to surgery that I’d be content with not training for 6 weeks.
I left at 4 AM the morning after the ride for Baltimore to prep for the surgery on Sept 11. I made sure I was fully hydrated for the ride (lots of porta potty stops!) and did some serious calorie reloading for the next 2 days post-ride before the 24-hour liquid diet pre-surgery. With all of the hard training leading up to surgery, I was a couple pounds lighter than my usual racing weight. I’ve always had a crazy high metabolism and typically eat 3000-4000 calories/ day to maintain my normal weight. At my post-op appointment on Sept 19, I was shocked to find out that I’d lost 10 pounds in only 8 days post-surgery. That became my biggest challenge for the next 2 months of recovery. I didn’t expect the complete loss of appetite and felt discouraged to see how quickly the muscle in my legs and arms melted away from inactivity. My 2 favorite things in life are exercise and food. I’ve always loved to eat but it became a daily chore. I supplemented my normal diet with lots of cookies, brownies, apple pie, and ice cream.
I gradually gained a pound each week to get back to my pre-surgery weight of 119 pounds by early November but it wasn’t easy! I walked for an hour every morning but felt tired, weak and nauseous if I did much else. The symptoms were similar to my first trimester of pregnancy where I had to eat without any appetite to make myself feel better. I even had a bag of saltines by my bed to snack on at night when I’d wake up famished. Thankfully I began to feel better when I started gaining the weight back. Every week was better than the previous but I never really had an appetite until I started exercising at the six-week point.
Six weeks post-surgery, I felt almost normal and looked forward to starting my fitness comeback. My triathlon club had a group 43-mile ride planned that weekend so I decided to join them with the option to turn around early if needed. My legs were definitely weaker on the steep uphill climbs but I didn’t notice any change in my aerobic capacity. I rode the entire 43-mile loop and felt fine.
I was ready to start back to my normal off-season training schedule. The twice-weekly interval sessions in the pool feel fine even with some intensity. I’ve resumed 2 bike trainer sessions each week but at a lower intensity. I’ve gone back to coaching my weekly track group. I won’t be ready to join them for intervals for a while but I’m happy to do the warmup, cooldown, and recovery sets as part of the group. My first trail run was tough- very slow and only 90 minutes. I do a Vinyasa and Yin yoga class almost every day and a strength session twice/week. My strength workouts are not my usual core-based routines. Mostly focused on lower body with lunges, squats, step-ups, and calf raises. My abs are still sore on either side of the incision so have intentionally cut back on some of the yoga twists and up-dogs.
I asked my surgeon to take pictures of my kidney before and after extraction. How cool is that??