I own a CrossFit gym in Beaverton, Oregon and on August 1, 2018, I donated my left kidney to one of my athlete’s 12-year-old son. Neil, the father of my recipient, Bransen (12 years old), aka Boom, has been a member of my CrossFit gym for 6 years. In March of this year, Neil came into CrossFit not looking like his usual happy self. I asked him if everything was okay and he said that he and his wife, Kristine, were just told that morning that Bransen’s kidney was failing and that he needed a kidney transplant. Bransen was born with kidney cancer and by the age of 15 months, he already had his right kidney removed and the upper and lower lobes of his left kidney. They knew since he was an infant, he was eventually going to need a transplant, but of course, one is never really prepared for when that time comes. After talking with Neil for a few minutes, I asked how I could get tested to see if I was a potential match.
You see, my husband Jim is an AML survivor. He was diagnosed when he was 39 and when chemo wasn’t working, he was told his best chances of living was a stem cell transplant. Doctors told him the best possible match was a sibling of the same gender. Fortunately for my husband, he is the 11th of 12 kids and had 7 brothers that could get tested. His brother, Chris, was a perfect match. It has been over 10 years since the transplant and he is now cancer free. Without donation…let’s just say I am thankful for science. 😊
I am a parent of 3 children and I couldn’t imagine what Neil and Kristine were going through, knowing that there are so many people on the transplant list and that the wait could potentially be years. I’ve been a firm believer in living donation, and there was a reason why God directed Neil to my CrossFit 6 years ago. There was no hesitation to volunteer because I knew in my heart that there was a bigger picture and I had this gut feeling that I was meant to be a part of His plans for this family.
The day before surgery, Bransen and his family, and some family friends of theirs came into CrossFit to do a Surgery WOD (Workout of Day) with myself and some of our CrossFit athletes. My son, Zach, who also coaches at my CrossFit, came up with the WOD and the rep scheme had to do with the date of transplant 8/1/18 and the approximate combined hours both surgeries would take. IT WAS AWESOME!! At one point during the WOD, Bransen and I were doing wall balls next to each other and I became very emotional, knowing what was about to happen, and again, as a mother, I couldn’t imagine how his parents were feeling right at that time. Scared? Anxious? Nervous? Happy? All of the above?
I have had multiple abdominal surgeries before and I knew what to expect when it came to pain and discomfort in that area. The donation was actually less painful than a C-Section (all 3 of my kids). I knew I didn’t want any painkillers as I know what they can do to your digestive system. I asked to not receive any and to take just Tylenol and the doctors granted my wishes.
Recovery went very smoothly for me! I went into CrossFit 7 days after donating to get out of the house, socialize, and maybe “no rep” a few people. HA! I wanted to give myself enough rest before I went back to coaching so that I wouldn’t regress once I started back. So on day 12, I went back to it. It was perfect timing. My athletes knew that I would need help demonstrating movements for a week or so and everyone was happy to help me out and be my “Vanna”.
Rumor has it that the older you get, the longer it takes to recover from an injury/surgery. I had just turned 48 a few weeks before the donation and I can tell you that, although this rumor holds true for me, my recovery was still pretty easy. I believe that being healthy and strong, not only physically but also mentally, is what helped in my recovery. I had the mindset before surgery that my recovery was going to be fairly easy. My attitude stayed positive. I just knew that I would be back to CrossFitting and running. There was never a doubt in my mind.
3 weeks and 3 days after donation I ran 3 miles. 3 MILES!!! I captain a team for a 199 mile 12 person relay called Hood to Coast. It is always the last full weekend in August and I had to back out of running in it because of the transplant, but I still remained team captain (with the help of one of my teammates, Ben). I was already planning on meeting my team at the finish line on the beach, but about a week before the relay, I decided I might try to run the last mile with our 12th leg, Aaron. Come race day, I was feeling pretty good and ended up running 1.5 miles backward to meet him on the course and then turned around when I saw him to run to the finish line, making it 3 total miles. I will admit that I got winded around 2.5 miles but with the help of Aaron, I stayed strong and we ran across the finish line, hand in hand, and with the rest of our team.
Exactly 3 months after donation, I took part in a 3-week online CrossFit competition for a non-profit called Everyday Warrior. Their mission is to inspire, empower, and financially support individuals in the CrossFit community who have been diagnosed with cancer and are currently undergoing treatment. This was great timing. I was released by my docs to start lifting heavier weights, Bransen was born with kidney cancer and we met because of CrossFit; it all seemed perfect. I wanted to compete to show others that you can be competitive with only 1 kidney. Well, I surprised myself and ended up taking 1st place in my division. Yeah, I was pretty stoked! 😊
It is now 5 months post-op and I am feeling great. I find that there are days where I feel fatigued and so I listen to my body and rest on those days knowing that it’s all part of the healing process. I am currently training to run the San Diego Half Marathon in March with my daughter. I have good training runs and other training runs where it takes everything I’ve got to get through them. Fortunately, I run with a group of girls from my CrossFit who support me and help me go the distance.
Every once in a while I get a glimpse of my scars in the mirror and it’s a reminder of being part of something that is greater than myself. Boom is doing better than expected. The kidney took so well that he takes less than a 1/3 of the medication most recipients take. I’ve been asked…”What if one of your kids needs a kidney down the road?” I can’t and don’t live my life by “what ifs”. If I had another kidney to donate to someone else to help save that person’s life, stranger or not, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
I want to be an advocate for living donation and I am still trying to figure out what my role is and how it’s going to look. One really cool thing that is happening is that my son, Zach, is donating bone marrow on 1/9/19 to a 14-year-old boy, via Be The Match. All 3 of my kids (Coley 24, Zach 23, and Max 21), as well as myself, are registered donors. 3 out of 5 people in my immediate family (along with my brother-in-law, Chris) are directly affected by living donation. How cool is that?
What an inspiring story. Melissa lives inside Boom and has become part of his life. Boom and the rest of the family will be indebted to you forever. We came to know Neil (as a teenager), and his family while we were living in Zimbabwe , and have been following him on FB. When we found out that Boom was sick and needed a kidney transplant, we felt for him and hisparents. Thank you Melissa for being part of their lives. God will bless you and your family. Celine and Niranjan Samarasekera (Melbourne)