Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Stephanie!

For much of my life, I would say that I had a pretty casual relationship with exercise – I’d been a high school tennis player, and still occasionally hit the courts, but likely spent more time watching sports than participating…until ten years ago.  For my twenty-eighth birthday, I decided to set an ambitious goal, in memory of my father, who died of a heart attack at the age of 28 – I would take on a major physical challenge every year to both raise awareness of heart disease and prove to myself that it wouldn’t take me. 

 

The years went on, and so did the challenges – half marathons (21), marathons (2), duathlons, triathlons – and I truly enjoyed each challenge.  But it wasn’t until last year that I took on the most meaningful of all – becoming a living kidney donor. 

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For me, that story began as many stories do these days – with social media.  I’d just read one of those great human interest pieces on a stranger matching with another to give a life-saving kidney donation, and I sent the link to one of my best friends – who by now is very accustomed to such a thing, as well as the outlandish proclamation that would typically follow – things like “I’m hiking across the Grand Canyon!” or “I’m running for office!”  It’s hard to shock him these days.  That day, I declared, I’m going to donate a kidney.

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In truth, the path to this statement was longer than a few articles.  I’d had a friend in my Rotary Club donate, and had watched a friend’s father and another’s daughter receive kidney transplants, and had always marveled at the science of it, the compassion.  It kicked around in the back of my head for years, occasionally being stirred up again by another story.  I can’t tell you why this time felt different, or really anything about the particulars of that story, but it was the moment the switch clicked for me.  The next opportunity that came my way, I was going to donate a kidney!

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But what did that really mean, in reality?  I made this decision, told a handful of folks, and effectively went on with my life.  For five days. 

 

On that fifth day, I saw a social media post from one of my favorite high school friends; one I adored but hadn’t seen outside of social media in more than a decade.  Guess what?  Her husband needed a kidney. 

 

I was momentarily stunned.  This was it.  This was the sign.  Forget my earlier nudge, this was God pushing me – hard – in this direction.  And indeed, it was.  On December 18, 2018, Katie’s husband, Dan, someone who had previously been a total stranger, received my kidney – leftie, as we’d called him. 

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The journey between the Facebook post and surgery was exciting, nerve-wracking, and one of the most fulfilling of my life.  How do you reach out to someone and tell them that you’re in?  Have kidney, will donate?  I fretted about that – what do I say?   How do I not sound like a total lunatic (social media is full of lunatics making wildly personal offers to strangers!)?   Well, there is no real way, friends, but I did it, anyway.

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I responded to the Facebook post (along with many other people – this Dan must be a pretty good guy!), and found out the first step was to share a blood type.   A one in four chance of that, so I’m told.  Success!  Feeling accomplished already.  The next step for me was reaching out to the University of Kansas Transplantation Center for an in-depth conversation and health screening.  As you might expect, they are pretty particular about who is deemed healthy enough to donate (thank you).  I completed the paperwork, tracked my blood pressure for a week, and generally tried not to let my nerves get the best of me.  At several points along the way, I had conversations like this with the handful of people who knew – “You’ll surely get eliminated, right?  I mean, it’s so rare to match…”

 

Hurdle after hurdle, blood test after blood test, I passed.  We were a match.  The final step in the process is a full-day, full body mental and physical health screen at KU.  You meet with the surgeons, the kidney doctors, social workers, nutritionists…a steady stream of people who are supportive but kindly trying to talk you out of it.  My husband came with a legal pad full of questions…I won’t tell you where “Can she still drink wine?” fell on the list.  If you make it through this gauntlet (about half do not), they take your case to the full committee for approval.

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Just before this day is when I finally met Dan.  They came into town for lunch (and so he could meet the crazy stranger one step away from getting approved to give him – a stranger – an organ).  It was perhaps the only successful blind date of my life.  And again, how does that conversation begin?  So…what kind of life will you provide for leftie?  He is accustomed to only the finest Kansas City BBQ and Napa wine…I still haven’t quite figured out how to explain why I felt so called to do this, but I stumbled through as best as I could.  My favorite moment was Dan sweetly disclosing to me that while he knew I was a Republican, he was, in fact, a Democrat.  Was that okay?  We’ve joked many times since that leftie was certainly going to swing him to the right (it has not).

 

A few weeks after my marathon day at the hospital, I received a call from their donor coordinator, Melissa (an angel on Earth) – you’re in.   The committee had approved my donation, and they were ready to contact Dan and schedule surgery.  Of course, this is the moment it all becomes very real.  I called my husband and he promptly dropped the phone.  I was excited, and only briefly terrified.  I waited through the weekend to share the good news, to be absolutely sure I wasn’t going to chicken out, and took a deep breath and started typing.  I can never fully describe the feeling of getting to send Katie and Dan the message that we were approved – it was going to happen.

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Because Dan’s kidney function was still above dialysis levels, we had some flexibility in the schedule, and landed on the end of the year, to accommodate work schedules, vacations, and other commitments.  This all happened in early June, so there were several months that went by that it still didn’t feel entirely real.  It wasn’t until life started scheduling out into the holiday season, and I had to start planning for the downtime that I really began telling other people.

 

The response was nearly always the same – “You’re doing what?”  This was my favorite.  Occasionally I would simply say I was having surgery, but that prompted more concern than anything else, and truly I wanted people to know that this was a thing – a thing that they should also consider.  So, I started telling everyone.  We threw a kidney going away party.  And of course, taking it back to the beginning, we posted on Facebook.  A lot.  My apologies to everyone who had to hear about it nearly nonstop in those final weeks.

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Because I also have the great fortune of being in an elected office, we also had the opportunity to share our story to a broader audience via local news.  I was admittedly rather reticent about this at first – isn’t that just a blatant grab for attention?  I kept coming back to the statistic I’ve been told many times along this journey – there are more than 100,000 people in the United States waiting for that phone call.   That Facebook message.  So, we did an interview.  And then another.  And another.   Watching friends and strangers share this message through their own networks brought me unspeakable joy (and just a few happy tears).  It truly felt as though we had an entire community of people supporting us.   It was incredible.

 

The night before surgery, that same best friend took me out for what I was jokingly calling my last supper – oysters, and my favorite dessert in Kansas City (they make a bag out of chocolate and fill it with more chocolate…God bless America).  I am one who is prone to anxiety and worry the night before a big event, but that evening I went to bed, as more text messages rolled in, feeling absolutely nothing but excitement and love.

 

Bright (well, pre-bright) and early the next morning, I found myself in a hospital gown, preparing for the big moment.  Many of my favorite people were there (we had so many guests, the hospital gave us our own waiting room – what can I say?  We like to celebrate), and I felt nothing but calm.  Peace.  Gratitude for the opportunity.

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The surgery went smoothly, and soon enough I was in my own room recovering, surrounded by those same wonderful people.  The next two days were a blur (only partially medically-induced) of smiles, laughter, and joy – and a little pain, but not nearly what I had imagined.  Dan was only three doors away, and he and Katie regularly stopped by, along with many others – I felt so blessed.  When Katie came in two days after surgery – the morning I would head home – and told us that Dan’s levels were better than they’d been in more than twenty years, the magnitude of what we’d done finally hit me.  Meeting his family.  Hearing from his friends.  I’ve always prided myself on my ability to restrain my emotions, but meeting his mother as I was being wheeled out of the hospital to my car was indescribable.  And you bet I cried.

 

For the week and a half that followed, I rested.  This is nearly impossible for someone who routinely double and triple books out her life!  Every day, a sweet friend would bring over dinner, and chat for a minute, but most of the days were filled with binge-watching television (the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel – hilarious, but perhaps not the best idea when laughing literally hurts?) and snuggles from our suddenly very protective rescue mutt – they always know, don’t they?

 

My recovery wasn’t hiccup free – I had what seems to be a very rare allergic reaction to surgical glue (One medical professional said, “I’ve only seen this three times in thirty-eight years”…I knew I was special!), which made for some unpleasant days, but in the end, will be a minor footnote to the story.

 

In the months that followed, I jumped back into training with both feet – waiting until precisely the six-week mark of my medical clearance, and promptly doing two lengthy sweat sessions (sweat, how I never thought I’d miss you!).  My running wasn’t always pain-free, and gosh I started out a lot slower than I’d remembered, but there is something so powerful and humbling about the gift of good health following this kind of experience that makes even the most difficult runs worthwhile.

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Today, at the six-month mark, life is normal.  I am back at work, and back to planning my next adventure (which seems to be a two-fer this year – running for mayor and running back-to-back half marathons).  I find myself not getting as caught up in the day-to-day stresses like I did only a few short months ago.  The things that were a major part of my life (hello, stressful political conversations) now seem so much more trivial.

 

One thing I haven’t adjusted to is the way other people treat me, their very kind words.  I will just never be comfortable being called a hero, angel…any of that.  I did what I felt deep in my soul was right, and it was the easiest decision in the world.  I am still the same foul-mouthed, hot-tempered woman I was before, and I don’t deserve extra praise for doing something that seemed so second nature.  Dan, and all of the other 100,000 people who are forced to spend their days in hospitals, on dialysis…waiting for the life-saving call – they deserve the praise.  My surgeon, Dr. Kumer, deserves the praise.

 

Back at the two-week mark, we both had another check-up at the hospital, and I happened to run into them as they were viewing his latest ultrasound.  Seeing your kidney hard at work inside someone else’s body is a moment I will never, never forget.  It makes me tear up every time it comes to mind.  I want so many more people to have that experience.

 

Dan and Katie have returned to Wichita and also back to their regular lives.  I’ve seen them several times since we left the hospital.  We talk a lot about how leftie, now “Kenny the Kidney” is doing, and they are so kind.  Much has been made of the donation, but I want them to know that while I lost a kidney on December 18, what I gained was tenfold.  I am forever changed – for the better – and I owe all of that to them…and a Facebook post. 

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2 thoughts on “Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Stephanie!

  1. I’m love the idea of a kidney going away party!!! Just waiting for final approval before my new friend (previous stranger who I heard about via a mutual friend) gets my kidney!!!

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