I have never considered myself an athlete. I don’t join clubs or teams. I avoid gyms like the plague. I don’t lift weights or compete against other people. I have been carrying an extra 20 or 30 pounds my entire adult life. Doesn’t sound too athletic, does it?
But, on the other hand, I am and have always been very active. I am outdoorsy, strong, healthy, goal-oriented, and adventurous. And I am lucky that my amazing job schedule (One month on/one month off, as the Chief Engineer of an ocean-going tugboat,) allows me the time to have amazing adventures.
One night, as I was midway through the midnight watch in my engine room, I happened upon an amazing podcast. It was Freakonomics Radio, and they were telling the story of Nobel Prize-winning economist Al Roth. Al won the Nobel Prize in 2012 for his work in creating markets for items that have no cash value. Items like, say, kidneys. Al was instrumental in creating the mathematical algorithms that resulted in the creation of the National Kidney Registry. And that is when it first occurred to me that this could be my next great adventure.
You see, I was in my late 40’s. I had just achieved a major lifelong goal of earning my private pilot’s license at age 46. I was looking for the next thing. Something to focus on, something that might not be so selfish. Something that might benefit somebody else, instead of just feeding my own considerable ego. And I thought to myself, “Why not? Why wouldn’t I do this? I still haven’t climbed Kilimanjaro, rafted the Grand Canyon, or hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, but this could be an adventure every bit as challenging, rewarding, and memorable. And, rafting the Grand Canyon doesn’t save somebody’s life.”
My wife said to me “This is the weirdest midlife crisis I have ever heard of.” I told her, “You know, some guys buy Corvettes and have affairs.” That quieted her down. For a minute.
It took me almost two years to get my ducks in a row, so to speak, and to get my work schedule set up to where I could make this happen. There was six months of needle sticking, jug peeing, ultrasounds, MRI’s, paperwork, psychological interviews (fooled em!) and doctor visits. I put more blood in vials than I knew I had. I got injected, inspected, infected, neglected and finally, selected. But seriously, I really appreciated the testing process that led up to the procedure. I now know that I have a 100% clean bill of health. I was given every test known to man, and pronounced “Good to go.” I am now confident that unless I fall off of a cliff or twist a knee, I will be hiking the trails above my little valley well into my 80’s. That is good information to have, and I am using it as an incentive to stay active, keep the weight off, eat healthily, and make good decisions. Good decisions like getting rid of my snowmobile and my motocross bike. Yup, that nonsense is behind me. 50-year-old bodies just don’t bounce like 30-year-old bodies do. And, while there is no difference in life expectancy or quality of life of a kidney donor as compared to someone with two kidneys, there is a small added risk. Because if you wrap yourself around a tree, or a yield sign, or a Pontiac, and damage your one remaining kidney, there is no spare. Mortality. What a concept.
When the big day finally came, I was elated to learn that I would be a part of a paired kidney exchange. A beautiful, courageous, and generous woman named Wendy Johnson had pledged her kidney to a stranger in order to get her friend DC moved to the top of the list. Wendy was not a match for DC, but I was, and the deal was made. I was secretly hoping that my donation would trigger others, but I had given Virginia Mason Hospital a very specific time frame that I could do this, because of my work schedule, and they told me that it was unlikely that my donation would trigger a chain. They kept my donation “in house” at Virginia Mason and did not shop it out to the National Kidney Registry, which would have required much more flexibility in timing in order to set up a chain. So I went into this thinking that it would just be me and one other person, and I was okay with that. But I was twice as okay to learn that my donation had triggered another. Also, I was kind of glad that my kidney was staying local and not riding a plane to Miami, and I was elated to learn that the other donation would be to a Native Alaskan woman from Utqiagvik, Alaska, which is the northernmost town in the U.S. Just think of how terrifying it must be to live in an Arctic village with a serious health problem. Her odds of receiving a kidney were very small. There is no way she could have gotten herself to Seattle in time to receive a deceased person’s kidney. She does not live right around the corner. And, having spent much of my working career sailing all over the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean, I have a deep emotional connection to Alaska. It just felt right.
I got one last cheeseburger before the big fast started at noon the day before the surgery- (K-day, as I was calling it.) Why do they call it fasting? Time goes really slow when you are doing it. There is nothing fast about fasting. But my wife and I were able to relax and enjoy a quiet evening together. Well, quiet except for my rumbling stomach.
Surgery day started early. We beat the traffic into Seattle and arrived at the waiting room before the staff. There were other people in the waiting room. There were sideways glances and eyes peeking over newspapers. Is that my recipient? Is that the other donor? I wouldn’t find out until two days later. I was about to be gutted like a fish. I wasn’t feeling chatty. I was in the prep room at 7:30, changing into the world’s worst outfit. The whole team came to meet me, one by one, and I got stuck with a few more needles. My wife had a very concerned look on her face, so I was determined not to. We kissed goodbye at 8:45, and that is when- Shit. Got. Real. I had to fight the urge to bolt as they were wheeling me down long corridors. Somebody forgot to give me the Valium in the prep room, and I had to fight down panic. Everything was white, bright, sterile, cold. Machines. Lights. Sounds. All foreign. Faces covered with masks. I concentrated on taking deep breaths and staring straight at the ceiling. I did not want to see the tray full of knives. Deep breaths. And then… nothing.
They told me the procedure would take between 3 and 5 hours. But because of my Teenage Mutant Ninja kidney, mine took 6 ½. You see, most kidneys have one artery and one ureter. Mine had three arteries and two ureters. “Tri-power with dual exhaust,” is how one of the surgeons described it. They nicknamed it “The Beast.” They had to splice the three arteries into one and the two ureters into one, like pant legs, before they could sew it into DC. They loved it. Surgeons are weird. They live for things like that. They had a ball.
But, unfortunately, while they were having a ball, my wife was having a very long day. She is a rock, but if you tell her 5 hours, you’d better not let it go 6 ½. Many friends called and texted her during the day, and the concern was appreciated. She needed the distraction.
I don’t remember much from that afternoon. I remember my hip hurting a lot. They had me on my side for the whole surgery, and my hip was throbbing. I remember discomfort from the gas that they introduced into my abdomen. I remember lots of cramps and horrible noises as that got worked out of my system. And then I remember this wonderful stuff called Dilaudid. Oh my. That stuff is a little shot of heaven. I totally understand heroin addicts now. You feel it go up your arm, down past your shoulder blades, and it just washes the pain away and envelopes you in a warm cloud. You start thinking thoughts like, “Man, Pink Floyd sure is great.” And then you start making a list in your head of all the other organs you could probably do without if they would just give you a little more of that wonderful stuff. And then you have 4 hours to refine the list until the pain returns. I asked for the shot twice in the first 24 hours and then came to my senses and decided I should leave some for the other kids.
Later, my best friend showed me a text I had sent him that evening. It said, “Let’s quit our jobs and be junkies.” I don’t remember sending it. Oh, did I mention that I am a recovering alcoholic? You may have figured that out on your own by now.
The entire staff at Virginia Mason was incredible. From the guy who checked us in at the front desk, to the surgeons and nurses, to the nice lady that emptied my wastebasket, they were all wonderful, without exception. There is no way for me to express my respect and admiration for the incredibly smart, dedicated, well-trained people who make miracles like this possible. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for studying so much harder in college than I ever did. You are the true heroes of this story.
We set up a meeting with my recipient for 10:00 in the morning, K-day plus two. All parties have to agree to meet, and I totally would have respected his privacy if he wanted to stay anonymous. But I really did want to meet him. And the meeting was great. He looked terrific. His creatinine level was lower than mine. The doctors were shocked at how quickly his creatinine level plummeted, with his new filter. They said it was “A real pisser!” If you only knew the power of The Beast!
I have a lot in common with DC. We are both sailors, we both play guitar, and we both have amazing life partners. We got to meet his amazing partner, Sarah Lee, his incredible friend, Wendy, and, later, her recipient, Debbie. I think I traded a kidney for four new friends. Good trade.
As I write this, 3 ½ months post-op, my recovery has been challenging, but relatively uneventful. The first week was hard. The discomfort from the gas was an issue, and my intestines took a week to wake up from the anesthesia. By night six I was sleeping in my own bed and not having to get up and walk every two hours because of the horrible cramping in my colon. It took a good 5 weeks for my energy level to return to normal levels. That was hard for me. I am an active person who moves around a lot, and I grew frustrated sitting in a chair taking catnaps every afternoon. I was walking the dogs every morning, slowly building my strength and stamina, but collapsing in my chair every afternoon. Luckily I had my guitar, and I turned that into my afternoon routine for about four weeks.
I only had one setback in my recovery. My doctors told me “Take it easy.” My wife told me “Take it easy.” My friends told me “Take it easy.” So what did I do? You guessed it. About 21 days post-op, I did a six-mile hike with about 1200 feet of climb. That was probably two miles too far, and I figured that out when the boys downstairs swelled up to the size of grapefruits and ached like they had a bus parked on them. I had to take two days off after that one. I believe it was Mark Twain who said: “A man who picks up a cat by the tail will learn something that he can learn no other way.” Lesson learned. The hard way, as usual.
I concentrated on building my strength, as I had set a personal goal for my recovery. I pledged that I would travel to Zion National Park and climb Angel’s Landing within a month of my surgery. I achieved my goal, with a little help from oxycodone, with two days to spare, on a beautiful clear spring day.
I returned to work with no restrictions six weeks after the surgery and began making a list of all the things I wanted to accomplish when I got back home. My first adventure was the Lakeshore Trail on Lake Chelan. 17 miles of beautiful wilderness, flowering dogwoods, wildflowers, butterflies, songbirds, and a few bears and rattlesnakes to keep things interesting. I had so much fun that I hiked it again the next day in the other direction.
Next on the list was a little bike ride. Okay, how about a 100-mile bike ride? I hadn’t done a century in 30 years. My oldest surviving friend, Terry McCurdy, came over and rode with me in the Apple Century bike ride, on June 1st. Terry is a machine, but he was very patient with me and waited at the top of all the hills. We pulled it off in a little over 8 hours, on a 93-degree day.
The ride was sponsored by the Rotary club, and I wore my “Share your Spare” tee shirt. At one of the checkpoints, a nice lady saw the shirt and introduced herself as our local nephrologist. We chatted for a few minutes. She knew all of the doctors I had worked with and said many nice and encouraging things to me. I think that’s my new favorite shirt. And she is my new favorite nephrologist.
Most recently I climbed Mt McGregor. It is about a 6000-foot climb, with 128 switchbacks.
So what’s next? I am considering attempting a “JFK 50.” When John Kennedy was president, he thought that his people were getting too soft, so he challenged the country to see who could cover 50 miles, using nothing but their feet, in under 24 hours. Lots of people stepped up and did it, including his brother Bobby. 50 years, 50 miles. Has a nice ring to it. That Kennedy guy, I swear. Dead almost 60 years and still inspiring. That’s called leadership, folks.
And guess what? I still haven’t climbed Kilimanjaro or rafted the Grand Canyon, and I have only hiked about 10% of the Pacific Crest Trail. But, hey, I’m only 50, right? There’s still plenty of time for that nonsense.
I read in someone else’s story that there are three things that Kidney Donors always say:
1: It occurred to me that I could do this
2: I thought “Why wouldn’t I do this?”
3: This has been the greatest experience of my life.
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