Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Pete!

Old running joke: How do you know if someone ran a marathon? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you about it.  We’ve all heard that one no doubt. But on this site, those stories have cool plot twists!

 

One year ago as I type this, on 7-13-18, I donated my left kidney to a man who needed one. If you donated in 2018 like me, you were one of 6,446 living kidney donors in the U.S.A.  Like many of the KDAs featured here, I’m a lifelong runner.  My dad got me started at a young age, like 6 if I recall.…it was the ‘70s. Running boom 1.0!

 

What kind of runner am I?  I ran through grade school and high school track and cross country also crossed the USA on a bike in the summer of 1986 with my dad and three friends.  After college, starting in 1996, I found my favorite distance: the marathon.  Not triathlons, not 100 milers, just marathons. And a few 50Ks for variety.

 

My wife and I have four kids.  Since running does not pay well at my speed, I have this job as cross country coach and social studies teacher at Nouvel Catholic Central High in Saginaw, Michigan.  I’m writing this for a few reasons: 1. No one from my home state of Michigan is on Tracey’s map. 2. I promised Tracey I’d eventually share my story and 3. If it can help anyone else make a decision about donating and saving a life, so be it!

 

First of all, let’s all say it together: wow. When I read these KDA profiles I’m beyond amazed at what living donor athletes are doing!  Let’s admit, we take a lot for granted in our tech-crazy world.  I think to myself: this is quite a recent thing in history: the first living kidney donation was right after WWII, and to date, not quite 155,000 people in the U.S. have ever donated a kidney while still alive.

 

You have to appreciate the world we live in, miracles made possible by our God-given imaginations combined with the power of science.  Someone donates one of their kidneys to save a fellow human’s life, returns to the strenuous physical activities they love almost as if major surgery never happened, and then writes a story to be posted on the internet for the whole world to see!  Well, if these stories don’t motivate and inspire you, I don’t know what will….or maybe I’m just getting old and remembering VCRs, flip phones and CD players like it was yesterday.

 

Why wait a year to write? Before donation, I had 97 marathons in the books (I mean my running log) and I wanted to see how many more I would be able to manage in the year after donation.  OK, it was seven.  You can quit reading now if you want.  I think I could have done more, but there are other aspects to life like…um…well, anyway…my GPS knows the way to many others, but seven was the lucky number for this first year post-donation.

Sequence of marathons since nephrectomy on 7-13-18
Sequence of marathons since nephrectomy on 7-13-18.

Back to the beginning: I knew nothing about living kidney donation in October 2016 when I came across a sort of “classified ad” from a local man needing a kidney.  What’s this all about, I thought? So, without telling anyone besides my wife, I decided to get tested to see if I was eligible to help this Saginaw guy with failing kidneys.  It was through our Catholic community that my eventual recipient reached out using messages in church bulletins.  Helping him spread the word and find a suitable donor was one of our awesome priests, Fr. Randy Kelly.  Fr. Kelly was the “broker” so to speak in this altruistic “transaction,” bringing together donor and recipient. As I mentioned, my knowledge of living donation was zero compared to what I’ve learned since then, but I had a strong faith and the desire to help a man in need.

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The local lab drew some blood and sent it off to Detroit’s amazing Henry Ford Hospital. Days later, good news: I passed, I’m a “match.” I immediately wanted to tell my recipient and his wife, (parents of former students) but I decided to remain anonymous for the time being, just in case. For months to come, it would be a nervous sort of waiting game, not knowing when (or if) I’d get the call to go to Detroit and donate “Bernie.” (My former left kidney’s name.  Don’t your kidneys have names?)

 

Not a day went by when I didn’t think about living donation or look up stuff online or say some prayers for people on the organ waiting lists. I learned all about GFR and creatinine and chained donations and recovery time and robotic surgery.  The only person I shared this with is my wonderful, awesome, beautiful wife Kathy who supported me 100% throughout the donation process.  She thinks living donation is great, but despite knowing me for the past 25 years, somehow has yet to be convinced about the greatness and coolness of distance running??? Anyway, she’s been cheering me on since my first marathon in Duluth, MN way back on June 22, 1996.

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1996: With family in Duluth, MN @ 5k night before 1st marathon

When the good folks at Henry Ford Hospital finally called, they set our surgery date for early July of last year, but then changed it to accommodate another pair. The new date was July 13, 2018, which made our 21st wedding anniversary “donation-eve.” So along with our college freshman son Matt, a nursing student at Saginaw Valley State University, we spent the night of July 12th at an apartment on the hospital campus “celebrating,” alcohol-free of course.  The only interesting drink I had that night was that awesome lemon-lime magnesium sulfate cleansing solution you all remember? It worked!

 

Everything went fine on probably the luckiest Friday the 13th ever for me. Thanks to the incredible skill of the surgical team at HF, Bernie went right to work in my recipient.  I was able to walk down the hall, which seemed to take forever at my pace, and visit him.  What an honor.  I never pictured it happening so we could meet up and talk and I could see him and know he was o.k. What a moment.

 

I got to go home on Monday, July 16th once everything woke up inside, and I could pee again. (You know, one of those rare complications, hope it never happens to you, not as fun as it sounds.) My recipient and I were released at almost exactly the same time and I think I only beat him back to Saginaw by a few minutes, maybe?

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My supportive family set up a makeshift “hospital bed” on the first floor of our home so I didn’t have to do stairs and generally took care of me. Thank you, Kathy, Matt, Joe, Sam, and Grace. 😊 As much as it’s nice to be cared for, this phase needed to end. Quick. Like all you KDAs, not being active (for me not being able to run) is the worst punishment.

 

Prior to donation, I had knee pain which caused me to switch to an exercise bike, so now I gave a kidney and I can’t run…ok, well, maybe my knee would get better too?  Also on my mind: I was signed up for the Grand Rapids Marathon in 14 weeks because I’ve not missed it since it started in 2004. Because…why break a good streak?

 

Back in June, due to the knee pain, I broke down and bought a cheap but sturdy, used Nautilus NR 2000 from a local shop, put it in the garage and a got a fan to go with it.  A stationary bike is like water for chocolate.  But that bike would get me through recovery. 160 bike miles in warm June got me ready for 211 bike miles in hot July (leading up to surgery), and 171 super-sweaty bike miles in scorching August.

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Finally, 18 days post-surgery, a single, deliberate mile of “running,” a 12:35 on the treadmill: July 31st, 2018 daily notes: “when will this be a RUNNING log again?” So my workouts became a shifting mix of the spinning torture device and running, but gradually more running less bike.

 

Five weeks after surgery: two slow treadmill miles at once, then 4, then on August 26 a nine-mile run at a s-l-o-w 11:30 pace.  More long runs followed at a very slow pace.  Thoughts began entering my mind like, “how am I going to do this marathon?” “How long will it take?” “Maybe I should wait until next year?”

 

Pushing doubts aside, on 10-21-18, in Grand Rapids, I went ahead and started the marathon. Not only did I finish, but I also beat my stretch goal, barely: 4:58:16. The 15-year streak is alive for another year. Great, but I knew my time had to get better.

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14 weeks after donation in Grand Rapids

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Grand Rapids was marathon or beyond #98. After cross country season was over, it was #99 at Stony Creek Metropark near Detroit.

#99 11-11-18. Not much action going on here
#99. 11-11-18. Not much action going on here at the end of almost 5 hours of cold, shuffling laps through Stony Creek Metropark near Detroit and finishing in an icy parking lot. Photo courtesy of Stony Creek Marathon.

For my one-hundredth, I chose the “middle of freakin’ winter,” which is what race director Don Kern calls it. It was the Groundhog Day Marathon, back in Grand Rapids, and this time my son Sam would be my running buddy and witness to this momentous occasion.

 

So my son and I drive the two-plus hours across Michigan at 4 a.m. It’s cold, it’s icy and snow-covered. I’m pumped. I’m about to run my hundredth marathon!!!  Before my ego could even start to inflate, I’m waiting in line for the porta-potty before the race start and I see this guy with a race number on his chest declaring it’s his 200th lifetime marathon! Yeah, his buddies even had a big cake for him after he finished.  So uh, I just congratulated him on his accomplishment and left it at that. Takeaway: God has ways of keeping us humble.

 

Besides, I had Mr. Sammy the 9th-grade football player who got drafted into running by his running- obsessed, one-kidneyed dad and did a 2-hour half that day, waiting for me for almost 3 hours at the finish line! What more could I ask for? #100 complete in a time of 4:55:49.

Sammy and I celebrate #100 2-2-19
Sammy and I celebrate #100 2-2-19

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Then 4 more marathons: Dearborn, Toledo, Bayshore and Charlevoix. 4:01:42 at Toledo was the best of the bunch.

 

Back in December, I was part of a 50K 3-person relay (the super-fun, super cold trail race known as the HUFF near Albion, Indiana.) Our teams included Sam and friends Dave, Sara, Jeff and Chris (with John, we’re known as the “Bayshore 5,” named after the beautiful Bayshore marathon held every Memorial Day weekend in Traverse City, Michigan.) Our “A” team team of Sara, Dave and Jeff was first in the mixed division and my team with Sam and Chris placed third overall in the men’s division.

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I can say giving Bernie away has had no real negative effect on me. Sure I miss my NSAIDs, but I’ve adjusted. I’m running as strong as can be for a guy turning 50 in a couple weeks.

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4-13-19. Breakthrough Martian Marathon finish, took 40 minutes off post-donation best: 4:09:12.

Like many of you, I’m back to giving blood after waiting the mandatory time to resume donations, just gave in July to celebrate my kidneyversary in fact!  I monitor my water intake like I’m a delicate houseplant. I’m registered for marathons this fall, including Grand Rapids and my 3rd Chicago (with the Bayshore 5!)  Back in the day, I ran some Bostons, some sub- 3 hour marathons, but at this point, I’ll take a sub- 4. Maybe someday I’ll reach 200 marathons and someone running “just” their 100th can look up to me and sheepishly give a “congratulations!”

 

Living organ donors are the answer to someone’s prayers, a gift from ones who have been gifted. KDAs are a special subset: we work hard at our disciplines and treasure our good health.  We tend to easily pass the physical tests. We build up our bodies and do things most people have little interest in, but which result in great health benefits.  We sacrifice each day, monitor our vitals, wear our Garmins, eat healthy foods (sometimes?!), avoid excessive alcohol (what did he say?) and our bodies reward us with low resting heart rates, less sickness, more energy, etc.  But then, counterintuitively, we put it all on the line for someone in need of an organ transplant. It’s like a spin on a well-known financial guru’s saying: KDAs “build health, then give.”

 

I was healthy and able to help a man facing dialysis and all the misery that means to a patient. He’s doing fine, living a much better quality of life. That’s the best part, knowing I could help someone in dire need and make a big difference for one starfish on the beach.  Like many of you, I learned a lot about our U.S. system of organ donation throughout this process.

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7-12-19: Our kidneyversary was the next day, so new t-shirts to celebrate!

There are almost a hundred thousand people waiting for a kidney in this country and counting.  Every 10 minutes someone else gets added to the list. Every day, 240+ people on dialysis die. The wait for a kidney is 3-5 years. A kidney from a living donor can add 20 years to someone’s life! After going through the workup, the waiting, the surgery, and the recovery, I agree with those who say if more folks knew what living donation entails for the donor, they would at least consider it, and together we could wipe out the waiting list.

 

Not that it’s all a breeze or something you’d do casually, but neither is running marathons, or 100 milers or climbing mountains or being a triathlete or a fighter or any of the other things you “crazy” KDAs do.  That spirit is probably what brought you to be a living donor in the first place.  Self before others seems to be the norm today. On this page, you find amazing and inspiring stories of devotion, generosity and sacrificial giving. Faith can move mountains, but you have to make the first move. There are real heroes out there in everyday life: parents raising troubled or disabled children and holding down a job or three, doctors performing miracles, people running shelters for the homeless, men and women heroically struggling to overcome addictions and live another day. Most of them do what they do without any fanfare.

 

Last year, my school had the opportunity to hear Travis Mills speak in person. If you don’t know who he is, he’s a soldier who lost both his arms and both his legs serving in Afghanistan in 2012.  He’s from Michigan, grew up not too far from where I live. Now he speaks and inspires people all over the country. He’s one of the funniest, most positive and incredible people you’ll ever see.  You need a word beyond “hero” to describe Travis. When you hear him, you feel your troubles and problems become pretty small, thinking about what he had to overcome and the positive energy he has to summon every day to keep going. He says “it’s on you to believe in yourself, it’s on you to make sure that you can keep going and pushing forward.”

 

Thank you, Tracey, and all of you donors and their families, doctors and health professionals for proving the transformative power of love inside each one of us. A favorite Catholic Saint from my lifetime is St. Teresa (Mother Teresa) of Calcutta.  She said, “good works are links that form a chain of love.” Like Travis Mills, she put others before herself and set the standard by using relentless positive action to overcome darkness.

 

Update 8-8-19: Over 1100 miles for 2019, over 1600 miles since my donation date. This summer, I’ve had the opportunity to train with Matt, get ready for another season of cross country, and marathon train, including some runs with our local group FSARC.  Following my one-year checkup last month, one of my lab test results caused a little concern, but the nephrologist said I am o.k. my kidney is fine and to keep going, no restrictions. And…I turned 50 and partied with family and friends. Feels the same as 40, just a bit slower.  If I make it to 200 marathons I’ll let you know….Stay healthy. Stay strong. Keep your pee clear.

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