At age 44, a friend challenged me to train for a marathon. I was an occasional runner at best and an out-of-shape husband and father of two little ones. I accepted and ran/walked the 2005 Twin Cities Marathon in 4:18. “Never again,“ I said. That sucked. Completely absorbed by our careers, and growing family, my wife ran her first marathon a year later and not long after we became hooked. Taking care of our bodies has become a way of life which naturally transferred to our children.
Fourteen years and 22 marathons later, including a 2011 3:34 PR, and two “hot” Boston Marathons ( ’12 BQ & ’14 as a charity runner for Boston Children’s) we’re still going strong. Age hasn’t mattered. In 2014, I Retired from a 31-year corporate career, which reinvigorated my love for running and fitness. It also allowed me time to follow my other passion to become an artist. And so I founded “inc2ink art, original home, and cabin portraits.” www.inc2ink.com I draw in the morning and run in the afternoon.
It’s been a dream following my passions. Life was good, but I still had a calling to do something more purposeful and significant. For many years I would tell my wife I wanted to donate a kidney even though I knew very little about what it entailed. It was a co-worker that had a child that needed a transplant day one. It lingered. A few years ago, I told a retired mentor and friend that someday I wanted to donate a kidney, but it never seemed like the right time and I just wasn’t sure I was committed, or not. He steered me to a verse from the Bible: 2 Corinthians 9 7, “Each man should give what he’s decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly, or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Would donating give me joy? Did I have the support of my wife, Tammy of 30+ years and our kids? There were still major questions to answer.
Just before Christmas 2014, a fellow runner friend and “March 2019 featured Kidney Donor Athlete,” Michael Koetting, posted a FB picture himself by a hospital bed (of course standing not lying down), the catheter in tow, holding a complimentary Mayo Clinic kidney pillow. He had just saved the life of a complete stranger. It was a well-kept secret and the inspirational “kidney punch” I needed. There would still be 4 more years of life events that would continue to push it aside and even forgotten at times. Self-inflicted running surgeries including two hernias, college soccer seasons, art, and of course more marathons took precedence. The question lingered; “would donating really give me joy?” In October of 2017, I finally reached out to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota and did the required donor questionnaire. Following a phone interview, my testing was set for late February 2018, but one week to go, my father passed away. As heartbreaking as it was, I decided to press forward, undergoing 3 days of testing at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and week later I was approved to donate.
There was an irony to an athlete walking the Mayo subways as a thoroughly tested healthy person who had chosen to have voluntary surgery while so many other very sick people waited for their appointments in the same waiting rooms. By August I was given the option to pick an early November surgery date for a non-directed, living donor nephrectomy. That same month my first blood kit went to Mayo Jacksonville. When you step up to donate, you’re reminded often by your transplant coordinator and social worker staff that you can back out at any time. The education process still continued. I would often ask myself if it was still in my heart and was I cheerful. It increasingly came back as “yes.” I continued to train. In September another blood kit, followed by one more in October. A candidate nearing end-stage renal failure waited for the compatibility test results. I received a call from Mayo. It was a match!! My transplant coordinator told me, the recipient, a rare B-, felt as if they’d won the lottery.
At some point, I’m guessing, we all ask ourselves if the training is all worth it, but suddenly the allure of a BQ time break at age 60 gave me a renewed focus with my training regimen. I felt like I had a good chance to BQ again. I gave a couple good efforts in the popular Revel Mt. Charleston downhill marathon in ’17 and ‘18 but faded fast both times when the course flattened and heated up. With the plans to donate in full motion, I had set a goal to run the WhistleStop Marathon (mid-October ’18), recover, donate a kidney on 11/5/18, recover, and run Boston 2020. Focused and determined, I didn’t miss a single training run, including 475 straight days of 10,000 steps or more, averaging almost 15,000. Actually, following a full 16-week training program was even a first. Funny how not skipping a training run actually prepares you better to run a marathon. Hmmm.
But with less than 2 months to go, the Boston Athletic Association (BAA), tightened their time standards again, erasing what I felt I could realistically achieve to BQ and ultimately to get in under the BQ cushion needed on top of that. Sticking to the training plan, my final weeks went well. I was optimistic and injury free.
A common theme among Kidney Donor Athletes is to build their bodies and conditioning to the best of their abilities, so as to not only endure their recovery but come back to full strength and excel with just one kidney. For all those who expressed their support of my decision, an equal number thought I was crazy. That “crazy” thought crossed my mind frequently, as well. It was especially difficult to explain that my kidney was going to somebody whom I didn’t even know. Less than 200 people per year step forward to become Good Samaritan Donors. Every time, I asked myself, it seemed like a no-brainer. I truly felt like I was easily of those 200. My wife and family were supportive, maybe a little eye-rolling at times.
Trusting a race plan that I’d broken 21 times before, I ran the best race of my life. It was a 13-second negative split second half and a BQ with a 3 minute 1-second cushion for 2020. That didn’t include 28 seconds lost at the start because the chip reader failed for all participants. At the gun I was leaning against a U-haul trailer, taking my time to the start line. Precious BQ seconds were lost, so -3:01 BQ gun time was it!
A week later, it was back to light recovery runs and turning my focus to getting ready to donate. And then I lost my mom. My mother joined my dad a week before surgery. Once again, I decided to press on, again remembering her nod of approval every time I had told her. Mayo assured me it would be perfectly fine and recommended I postpone surgery, but on 11/5/18 I was allowed to climb onto the OR table under my own free will.
Staring into the bright lights of the OR, a woman in a surgical mask introducing herself as Bethany, leaned in to tell me she would see that my kidney made it safely to Jacksonville. Tears came to my eyes, as that had been a concern I still hadn’t come to grips with around donating. Bethany recently told me the Florida surgeon had called her at 4:00 am on the day of surgery just check-in as part of the protocol. He had noticed it was a 58-year-old male and asked for a “shiny clean kidney.” Typically, older male kidneys are covered in fat, which the surgeon must remove. Now a badge of honor, mine was clean and shiny, she said. Ask for a picture of yours. One wasn’t taken of mine, but now I have a good idea what it looked like :o)
My loving wife, running partner, and caregiver Tammy (10 time Boston Qualifier) who never signed up for this, worried and waited on the floor above me. My surgery lasted just under 90 minutes. By 2:45 PM EST, priority in-bound Delta DL1272 from MSP landed safely in Jacksonville; business travelers not realizing their on-time flight was driven by a boxed kidney in the cockpit (that fact is confirmed). A driver was already waiting. The handoff was by the pilot and just 45 minutes after landing “her” surgery had begun.
My recovery went well from the start. The 2-day hospital stay consisted of waiting a few hours for my bowels to go back to normal function, CO2 gasses floating in my neck and shoulders, and a catheter for 2 days, as well as being asked every 30 minutes if I had passed… and whatever pain medications they wanted to give me. Still, it seemed like an easy price to pay for saving a life. By that evening I only needed Tylenol for pain. The nurses at Mayo were fantastic. Later I would write a personal note of thanks to them all. Just like we thank our volunteers in a race, thank your nurses even more. Our soccer athlete daughter had just become an RN and started her new job back in August. It has become a big bonding thing for us, now that I have experienced their work firsthand. (Love you, Hannah!)
I was released after two nights and walked out with Tammy for the drive home. I wore an abdominal binder for about 3 weeks (recommended). It’s a nice secure feeling while healing. The incision is numbed for 6 months, so I really did not feel a lot of pain. No Oxycodone! 4 days later, I walked 2 miles with Michael Koetting in a soccer dome. On Thanksgiving morning, just 3 weeks removed from surgery, the tradition went unbroken and I walked the LifeTime Turkey Trot 5K. On the home stretch, I couldn’t help myself to sneak a light run to the finish line being careful to not to upset any healing.
Doctor’s orders, I held back any other urge to try running, or resistance training until 6 weeks of recovery had passed. From there, I was careful to ease back into it. It wasn’t long after that I was back to maintaining my fitness base through an exceptionally challenging MN winter which has reared it’s lowest temps and highest snowfall amounts in decades. A slip on the ice and a concussion in early February 2019, and ramming my little toe into a piece of luggage in the basement for a broken little toe have been my only setbacks.
While the focus on recovery consumed my days, wondering about the status of my recipient was always on my mind. By early January, I surprisingly received an email from her. Mayo, had told me it could be up to 6 months, or never. While I was prepared for “never,” I definitely wasn’t being truthful to myself when I would say I was at peace if it were not to occur. She’s a mother of 4, with 7 grandchildren. Her kidney’s had been failing since 2001. Her new kidney started functioning immediately, fulfilling its ultimate destiny and doing the same thing for her it had done for me. We’ve both kept in touch and plan meet later this year.
The million-dollar question, “do I feel any different? (with one kidney)?” Physically, I feel no change. There’s no inner torso void that I feel, but the tongue and cheek “do you feel lighter now?” question persists. There’s no noticeable difference in how I physically feel, or with my renal function. Even with an intense workout, all feels the same as before. It does take time to build back to marathon fitness, but the challenge and the progress are motivating. My two days of testing back at Mayo were this past week. My numbers were all good. Resist the urge to look at your lab results and begin to Google them for answers. But do become a student of what they mean. It only helps you with asking the right questions and making the best decisions. Like most transplant centers, the Mayo nephrologists and transplant teams are among the best in the world.
What’s changed since Donating? Advil, a normal staple for runner aches and pains before is out forever. I actually stopped taking it a year ago. Our diets were pretty healthy before, so I really haven’t had to make changes in that area. I am more conscious of sodium, sugars and fatty foods. As before it’s all about moderation. I don’t think it will ever pass that I don’t consciously think about my choices every day and how lucky I am to have my health.
Mentally, I do feel a great sense of fulfillment. Moving from success in the corporate world to a more purposeful life as a living donor has been a mental medicine for who I am. 31 years of performance reviews and career accomplishments matter little to me anymore. Donating a kidney will never become a dusty plaque on the wall. It’s a new hard-to-explain, spiritual sense of joy for the soul that will always live with me. It’s introduced a new challenge to take even better care of myself and live the normal post kidney donor life expectancy that was advertised. Encouraging others to consider donating, or just to answer their questions never gets old.
Donating a kidney definitely makes you wonder why there are so many people waiting for transplants, or why many become too sick for that to happen. Myself included, I had no clue what becoming a donor entailed. I just tried to learn. Once I understood donors move on to live completely normal lives it went from, I guess I could donate to a family member too; I’ll donate to anyone in need.
I thought that donating would be the crescendo event and in time the memories would fade. Far from it! It’s only the beginning and I love that there are so many opportunities like “Living Donor Athletes” to get your story out. And I know for sure I’ve already inspired another to donate. I wish I could spill the beans in this profile.
Any chance I get, I love explaining the process of becoming a living donor. There are all the curious questions like: “If you donate your right kidney, does that have to go where your recipient’s right kidney was? What if your family needs a kidney? Do you have to pee more often?” I haven’t heard a donor story yet where that person doesn’t become an advocate for living donation in some way. As friend, athlete and non-directed kidney donor, Michael told me, when we met for lunch following his donation, “You made my day, just asking!” I use that line a lot now because it truly does “make your day” whenever you can advocate for becoming a donor. But first and foremost, “decide in your heart and give cheerfully.”