Meet Future Kidney Donor Athlete, Varla!

“Athlete” was not a word that was used to describe me growing up. Although I participated in sport at school, I was most likely to be found helping the younger girls learn to swim than training with the team swimmers. I did make the first team in my final year, but as it was the only team, does that really count? It was the first ever musketry team at our school though and being an avid bookworm my entire life, the fantasy of target shooting with rifles and being a real-life musketeer appealed to me. When I left school, I didn’t take part in many forms of activity until I was 34 years old. My friends told me about a fencing club starting in my hometown and I immediately signed up to play with swords. Again, the fantasy element of the activity appealed to me more than the idea of physical exercise. In the next couple of years, I learned to love the sport and in particular, the competitive aspect of it. I competed in various national competitions and although I only made it through the first round once, I managed to move up to 17th in the country. (The benefits of consistency in a small sport!)

Muck Run fun with my nieces
Muck Run fun with Varla’s nieces

In January 2015, I decided that I was going to do my best to improve that ranking, with my first goal being top 15 in the country. To achieve this goal, I knew I had to improve and start winning enough fights to get into the second round at competitions (the first round is round robin and the second is direct elimination). To my understanding, my biggest weakness in fencing was my fitness, so I decided to join many others I knew who trained at a local mma style fitness club and see what it was all about. I very quickly found that I enjoyed the group classes and made many friends as I gradually learned to push through and saw my fitness improve week by week. The gym also offered Brazilian Jiu Jitsu classes, but I thought the boxing orientated fitness classes were enough for me, with my fencing sessions. The more I heard about Jiu Jitsu, the more intrigued I was. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a ground-based grappling martial art, which is considered a very good form of self-defense, especially for women. And in May 2015, I started with a beginners Jiu Jitsu class, moving to the main class, in my brand new gi, in early June 2015. I quickly found a routine of Jiu Jitsu and fencing, plus the usual fitness classes I had been doing and was amazed at what I could achieve with my now fit body.

Deadpool Dory does Jiu Jitsu
Deadpool Dory does Jiu Jitsu

By the time I competed in my first Jiu Jitsu competition in February 2016, I had dropped about 25kg and was much healthier than I had been in years. Unfortunately, that did include some time out of training to heal a torn ACL, which is a common Jiu Jitsu injury, but was more likely caused by my fencing. Luckily it wasn’t a bad tear and in my rehab of the injury, I discovered that my years of inactivity had resulted in various challenges. I started working with an Exercise Physiologist regularly and he has helped me identify what is causing the problems and taught me to correct them, such as the way I was lunging in fencing, which probably played a major role in the knee injury. In addition, my first competition resulted in my second concussion in 3 weeks and limited training for 6 months while my brain healed. It took a while, and some mental work, but I did return to the mats fully, in both training and later, for competition again, winning my first fight back on the competition mat! I did also earn my new nickname, Dory, from the amnesia I experienced at the concussion.

Always something new to learn. One of the things I love about Jiu Jitsu
ALways something new to lean – one of the things I love about Jiu Jitsu

Due to various reasons, I chose to move to a new Jiu Jitsu club in May 2016 and although the choice meant I had to quit fencing (classes clashed), I have not regretted my choice for a moment. I am very proudly a PESFA girl, training under the legend Chris Bright and have the most incredible PESFA family. Thanks to his guidance, the support, and encouragement of my teammates and many hours on the mat, I graded to blue belt in May 2018.

Getting my Blue Belt
Getting my Blue Belt

My love for the sport has grown more each year and I’m excited for the journey that is still ahead of me in this beautiful art. To supplement my training and prove to myself I had overcome the concussions fully, I started judo in October 2018 and love the way the two sports complement each other. My first judo competition was 23 February 2019 and it also did not go as planned when I opponent landed on my left forearm, snapping both of the bones. I’m now a cyborg with plates on both of the bones and am out of training again for recovery. I have assured everyone, that once I am recovered, I will return to both Judo and Jiu Jitsu. It would appear that I am jinxed in first competitions so I better stick with these sports, not add new ones!!! That has obviously limited my training for the last few months, but once I am recovered from transplant surgery, I will be back on the mats, eager to show everyone what is possible with only one kidney.

Trail run with my house mate
Trail run with my house mate

Driving to a Jiu Jitsu competition in Cape Town on 20 August 2018, I received a message from a friend. The message said “Hi all☺ I have a special friend, Jason, who is in desperate need of a new kidney.  He is the father of 2 young children, and he would love to see his daughter and son grow up.  Both his kidneys are failing, and he is now living on dialysis.  As a donor, you need to be O blood group and in good health.  Please read up, chat to your doctor, and contact us if you want any further information.  Please seriously consider being a donor…you will be saving a life!!  Please forward/share this message on in the hope that we find a suitable donor. Thank you❤”

I have been a blood donor since I was 16, listed on the bone marrow registry for at least a decade, and have always said I want my organs to save people after I die, but I had not known much about living donation until earlier that year, when my friend in the USA had donated her kidney. I immediately replied that I would be willing to be tested (on the condition that my upcoming trip to Egypt wouldn’t exclude me) and I had this deep peace about the choice. As a Christian, I knew that God was involved in the decision I was making because the peace I had could only come from him. Jason and I connected via phone that weekend and he sent me the paperwork I needed to complete. One of the questions on this paperwork included how your family felt about the decision. I chatted to my parents, who were supportive of the idea and not very surprised that I was willing to do something like this. I didn’t tell anyone else for a while, but did a lot of research into exactly what was involved and was reassured by everything I found, especially how little impact it will have on my life and my ability to train in my chosen martial arts.

PESFA girls after a competition
PESFA girls after a competition

After a few nerve-wracking days and weeks waiting to hear if Jason and I were compatible, I was declared a very good match, which is definitely a God thing because it is rare for random strangers like us to be so good a match and we moved on to the next phase of the testing, my health. This is a very thorough health check on me in general and my kidneys specifically. If any of the tests proved that I would be compromised in any way by donating, the transplant is called off. After another round of blood drawn (I’m sitting at 26 vials so far) it was time for me to go to Johannesburg for a day of testing. This was exciting as it was the first chance Jason and I had to meet face to face after many conversations via Whatsapp and occasional phone calls. I started the process agreeing to give my kidney to a random stranger because he needed it and I knew it was what God wanted me to do, but by the time we had that first hug at O R Tambo Airport, I was doing it because my close friend needed it to have a good long and energetic life. I live an amazingly blessed life, but this is one of the biggest blessings ever. I lucked out on the random kidney twin lottery and my life is so much better with Jason and his kids in it. He has honestly become like a brother to me, yes, with the annoying habit of knowing exactly how to push my buttons included!!!

Jason and I. This photo was taken by the mutual friend who sent the message saying he needed a kidney!
Jason and Varla

All of the tests went smoothly, although I am still trying to figure out what superpower I got from the Nuclear GFR (I asked if you can choose when they injected the radioactive dye, but they said No). Much to the surprise of many of my friends, I passed the psychological assessment, even without coffee (I was doing the Nuclear GFR test at the time, so was not allowed caffeine). It is official people: I’m not crazy, I’ve been tested!!!

Jason and I go on adventures when I visit (if I'm not injured)
Jason and Varla go on adventures… when she is not injured!

Another trip to meet my nephrologist and surgeon where I signed off on all the paperwork and we expected to hear the application had been submitted to the Department of Health in early December. Unfortunately, Jason’s medical records needed some updates for the application and no one was available for anything but emergencies during the summer holidays. In the New Year, we both updated a few test results and finally heard on 19 February 2019 that the application had been submitted. Then we waited, as this can take 3 months. Luckily, although his kidney function was down to 8% at the last check, Jason’s overall health is stable with his current treatment regime, which includes 8 hours of peritoneal dialysis every night, so this delay wouldn’t compromise him too much. The next few months involved various delays and a few other tests, including a split GFR (which also didn’t give me superpowers, or least none that I have discovered as yet!) to get through various layers of approval needed in South Africa (which is a very conservative country when it comes to living donation) but the hospital panel finally gave us approval on Monday 1 July. Pending our final cross-match, my left kidney, which we have named Merlin, will be moving to Jason on 16 o July!!!

 

Stay tuned for part 2…

Celebrating Jason's birthday
Celebrating Jason’s birthday

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