A Canadian marathoner and a Texan cowboy walk into a bar.
Nope. There’s nowhere easy to start this story, so let’s just start at the beginning.
Some of my favourite early memories are running on a sun-dappled trail in Northern Ontario, dodging roots and rocks, little arms pumping and skinned knees straining to keep pace. Some things never change. Today, despite numerous running-related injuries, I’ve run dozens of marathons and ultras, I’ve qualified for Boston multiple times, qualified for triathlon age-group nationals multiple times, and hold top 3 female course records at 50k and 50-mile races. All with one kidney.
I donated my kidney to my friend Paul in 2002. Paul is a tough, slow-talkin’ Texan that I met doing side work painting murals. He was an electrician whose side job was handling bulls at rodeos. He had been unaware he had polycystic kidney disease until a bull trampled him. Did I mention he was tough? Ironically, that bull may have saved his life. This way, he received medical attention, changed his diet and tuned himself up as much as possible. Despite these efforts, both kidneys were removed (all 6 and 8 pounds of them), he lingered on dialysis and was placed on the waiting list for a kidney. He lived down the road from me in Nome (Texas). When he found a match, he was going to move his camper to Houston to be closer to the transplant hospital. When the camper returned, it would mean he was back with his new kidney.
Meanwhile, down the road in China (still Texas), I was training for another marathon. Despite loving running, I had been a chubby kid who lived in fear of looking stupid or not being “good enough” (whatever that means), so didn’t race until my 30s. But once I started, I was hooked! The challenges of 5km turned to 10km and longer, the sprint triathlons turned to Olympic and longer. I could finally see myself doing an Ironman.
Everybody’s plans changed September 11. After that date, everyone hugged family and friends a little tighter, and many people asked what else they could do to give back. As a critical care nurse, I knew my job made a difference, but I couldn’t help but wonder if there was more I could do. One day, I had my answer. As I drove past Paul’s house I noticed the camper had returned. Instead of a triumphant return, I found Paul sitting on his porch looking forlorn. The transplant had fallen through. The donor could not pass the physical and mental testing required. I discussed the situation with my husband that night and we both decided to get tested. We had the (potential) power to help and Paul had just too much life to live. I donated several vials of blood and a couple weeks later Paul called to tell me we were as good a match as cousins. This wasn’t necessary for the transplant but would spare him a full cocktail of antirejection medication. I continued to pass additional exams to determine my suitability. I made the social worker cry with my answer to her first question, “Giving away body parts isn’t normal. How will you feel if the transplant fails?” She said it was a great answer. (Hint: it involves a baby cow.)
I was told I would be among the first to have a laparoscopic nephrectomy at this facility. Since it reduced my recovery, I was game to fall within the surgical “learning curve”.
To remove my kidney, they made a 4-inch incision along my navel and 4 laparoscopic sites in my abdomen. And speaking of the learning curve, when I was in my own graduate training to become a nurse anesthesiologist, I worked with transplant teams and got to experience the dedicated professionals behind the scenes. Talking to donors before their surgery, and being able to answer their last-minute questions first-hand, gave us instant rapport.
Recovery was still challenging. I had strange food cravings. As a clean-eating vegetarian, I hadn’t eaten bacon and white bread in years, but man…it was all I could keep down. After a couple weeks, the cravings passed as suddenly as they came. I was also anemic and tired easily. I wasn’t in a rush to return to running, but when my sister ran her first half marathon 6 weeks after my donation, I knew I had to run it with her. Despite her fear of porta-potties, we finished!
Afterward, I was asked to answer questions for potential donors. I volunteered for several years fielding questions on post-op pain, compatibility and whether they could be active again. My joke, “I’ve only done 2 Ironman races since my donation” usually got a laugh. After I completed Ironman Brazil, someone suggested I do an Ironman on every continent to raise awareness for living donation. No thanks! Can you imagine an Antarctic swim? BUT a marathon on every continent was possible! And so, with two continents down, I started saving and training for the 5 remaining marathons.
If I were independently wealthy I’d have written this story many years ago. But life happens. I’ve had deaths, grad school, moves, a new career and business to launch. I’m happy to report, that with one remaining continent, the end is in sight. With luck, I will finish Africa with a marathon in Madagascar this June.
Ironically, I started this journey to answer people who thought it would slow them down. Only once have I dropped out for renal reasons. I was in a 50-miler three years ago and started having hematuria at mile 43; when it hadn’t cleared by 45, I had to withdraw. Labs showed no renal impairment, just a case of march hematuria. But it took quite a bit of explaining before my doctor believed I wasn’t in liver failure. (Side note: don’t get any blood tests after running 45 miles.)
Today, I avoid excess protein and anti-inflammatories, hydrate well and monitor bladder habits. The regular rigours of running have proven far harder on my body than the donation. For two years I have attempted to run 100 miles, but I can’t get myself to the starting line healthy. I have torn hamstrings, avulsed chunks of bone from my hip, sprained ankles, continue to fight Achilles tendonitis,…well, you get the idea. I don’t care if I have to crawl: I will finish this last marathon. Because I already have the only record that matters, and it has to do with longevity, not speed. Paul still has my kidney, and it’s been 17 years this February.