Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Jen!

In 2009, at 247lbs, I was the heaviest I had ever been in my life and although exercise had been a part of my life in the past, it was never something I could quite get to stick. I was overweight and overwhelmed. I’m not even sure I realized it but  I was waiting for a reason to change. That reason presented itself late in 2009 when my father was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease. I knew as soon as I found out that I wanted to be his living donor.

I went through the initial testing and sure enough, I was his match. Then came the devastating news, I could not donate because of my weight. This was unacceptable to me. I set out to change both of our lives. I was determined to do whatever it took! I changed my diet, and I trained for and ran my first half marathon.

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I got married on May 30th, 2010 and my dad was not doing well. While he had avoided dialysis at this point his body was growing tired. He has repeated incidents of gout and fluid retention. He watched my wedding from a wheelchair and had to use a crutch to walk me down the aisle.

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I was continuing to get healthier and lose weight but it was not happening fast enough. Finally,  in July 2010 I hired a coach and really got to work on my mind and my body. September 28, 2010, is the day  I became my father’s living donor. I have since gone on to lose over 100 pounds in total. Do not let me mislead you, the weight loss and fitness routine leading up to surgery were the easy part. I know it sounds crazy but it is true. My purpose was so big I could not do anything but succeed.

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One thing I will never forget is waking from surgery and asking how my dad was only to be met with vague answers and avoidance. I mean I know I was out of it, but I spend my day working in a prison so I know a lie, even by omission, when I see or hear it. I finally became so agitated that they had no choice but to meet my demand to see my mother. I knew she would tell me the truth whatever it was. And she did. The kidney was having a hard time “waking up”. Even now I can vaguely remember slight relief (because until I saw my mother I had thought my father might be dead) combined with panic that my kidney would never wake up. Luckily, the kidney did wake up and my dad’s recovery was quicker than mine!

When I set out to write about my experience, I really had to think about the recovery because mine, thankfully, was largely uneventful. I did not have any major complications and I do not have any horror stories to tell. However, surgery is hard on the body and the mind. It is a traumatic event, even when you are doing it for such an awesome reason. They warned me that I would be emotional and not entirely myself in the weeks following surgery but I did not buy it. After all, didn’t they realize what I had done to get here? Not a chance I was going to waste any time being upset or sad. Well, (and my poor husband can attest to this) I was wrong. I was a wreck; crying at the drop of a hat, devastated when I first saw my incision, oh and I could not lay flat for almost 2 months. I watched more reality TV than anyone should probably watch in their life, was more worn out than I can ever remember being and in all honesty, I was probably slightly depressed. And then, after 8 weeks off, I had to go back to work. I was EXHAUSTED for a month after going back. Working out was not even on my radar.

As I mentioned, I work in a prison and I distinctly remember the first time I had to run to an emergency after going back. It was not pretty and I realized at that moment that I HAD to get back to my commitment to my health and myself. I got back in touch with my coach, who by the way I still work with almost 10 years later and there will never be enough words to express my gratitude to her.

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The road back was SLOW. At first, it was working out about 1-2 times a week. Activities that had become easy to me in the months prior to surgery now seemed almost impossible. But I refused to quit. I could not (and still cannot) bear the thought of ever having to tell my dad that my decision to live with one kidney was affecting my health. Eventually, my endurance increased, I became stronger and working out and having an overall healthy lifestyle became second nature. I am proud to say that I have kept that weight off since I hit my goal weight in September 2012. Since then I have gone on to run countless 5ks and half marathons, Spartans, a marathon, a tough ruck, hit PRs with weight training and created a fitness family.

I have become something I never thought I would be, an athlete. One of my proudest moments since the donation came at a fitness showcase I participated in in October 2010. I was honored at that event with the Inspiration Award for my story of getting healthy and becoming a living donor.  I am often asked if having one kidney has changed my life. The answer is yes, but in the best possible way.

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People always comment on what an amazing thing I did for my dad. And while I know it certainly changed his life, I always point out what the opportunity to become a living donor did for me. It gave me my life back. People think I saved my dad but truth be told we saved each other. Being a living donor not only forced me to be conscious of keeping my body healthy but also made me focus on keeping my mind healthy. It has turned me into a person who chooses gratitude over negativity. It has created a mindset that has gotten me through some very difficult times. A mindset that I spend time trying to teach others.

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And speaking of difficult times, we have had a few since my donation surgery. About 5 years after the surgery my dad started having health problems which required a few hospitalizations and A LOT of testing. What they found was, despite an amazing recovery and almost 5 years his body had decided it no longer wanted to host my kidney and he was in rejection. I was devastated. How could this be happening? He was meticulous about his diet, took all of his medication and followed all the doctor’s instructions. This time he had to start dialysis and the physical limitations were very apparent to all of us. None of my family members were able to donate. He was placed on the UNOS list and there did not seem to be much hope of finding a donor is a reasonable amount of time. We wrote letters, made flyers handed out cards with his information and tried to use Social Media. All of which was hard for my dad to take. He is old school and family business is family business. When my parents found out about the SHARE Program my mother decided she would pursue being a donor.  In July 2107, through my mother’s donation to the SHARE Program, my dad received his second kidney transplant. He is still going strong two years later. To say we are grateful is an understatement. It is not lost on any of us that many people do not receive the gift of one transplant let alone two.

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I mentioned we’ve had a few challenging times since 2010. On June 10th  of this year, I was diagnosed, at the same hospital that did my mine and my dad’s transplant surgery, with thyroid cancer. One of my first thoughts was “how am I going to tell my dad?”. I knew that cancer treatment, should I need it beyond surgery could be especially problematic for someone with one kidney. When I told my parents, I told them we were not going to panic and we were going to be grateful. Grateful that they said they caught it early, grateful for the medical care I have access to in the Boston area, grateful that the hospital that would be treating me had access to all the transplant information should they need it. We were grateful and just like they did on September 2010, on August 5th, 2019 Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston Massachusetts took THE BEST care of me. They removed my cancer and I have since been cancer-free with no need for further treatment.

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Remember when I talked about the gratitude mindset? Living donation brought that to my life.  I am often asked if having one kidney has changed my life. The answer is yes, but in the best possible way. I don’t waste time in my everyday life thinking about what could go wrong because I have one kidney, I choose to focus on all the things that went right.

So considering all of this,  what would I tell someone who is considering living donation? There are certainly challenges but the rewards far outweigh them. The unintended benefits of doing something like this will stay with you for the rest of your life. It is the most important thing I will do in my life.

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