My name is Emily, and my first exposure to living organ donation was in high school. I was friends with a young man who found himself in liver failure at the age of seventeen and our pastor’s wife donated a lobe of her liver to him, saving his life. Now, fifteen years later, he and his wife just celebrated the birth of his first child and both donor and recipient are thriving. At the time, I remember being struck by how miraculous this procedure was, and thinking that if the opportunity ever arose for me to give someone that gift, I would take it.
My second personal encounter with someone connected to living organ donation was in the early summer of 2018. I was meeting with an incoming student at the university for which I work, and she explained to me that the reason she had a gap year between high school and college was because she had been in kidney failure and due to her rigorous dialysis schedule and constant fatigue, school hadn’t been an option for her. Fortunately, she was three months into recovery from a life-saving kidney donation given to her by her grandmother (who was alive and doing well post-surgery), and she would now be able to attend college like a normal girl her age. I was once again struck by how amazing our bodies are and that it is possible for us to give people a second chance at a normal life without negatively impacting our own.
Less than two months later, I saw a post that my sister shared on social media with a picture of a sign in the back windshield of someone’s car, broadcasting the words “Single dad of three needs type ‘O’ kidney”. The sign included a phone number, and I noticed that the area code was local. I can’t really explain why I called, other than that it seemed like I was supposed to. I figured that the chances of my actually being a match were slim, but why not go through the process and find out?
So I called the number. I’m not sure what I had been expecting, but I was surprised when the call was answered by the single dad in question, Ryan. After a very short (and for me, super awkward) exchange, he gave me a link to the Henry Ford Transplant Center questionnaire that would get the ball rolling on the evaluation process.
Fast forward two months, a few dozen vials of blood, several hospital visits and crazy tests, and lots of conversations with family and doctors, and it was determined that I was not only a match, but I was a good candidate for donation. On October 29th, I got the call that I was approved to donate, and we scheduled surgery for January 9, 2019.
During the process of being evaluated, I spent a lot of time researching the donation process and trying to wrap my mind around the decision I was making. Were there any outlying circumstances that could cause problems? The only potential issue that kept coming up in my internet searches was my weight. Henry Ford Transplant Center requires that donors have a BMI of less than 35 (mine at the time was a 30.2). However, I was finding that other transplant centers require that donors have a BMI below 30. This made me a tiny bit concerned- if a BMI between 30 and 35 is really okay, then why are so many other transplant centers restricting donors in that weight bracket? In order to play it safe, I decided to spend the two months prior to surgery focusing on bringing down my BMI as much as possible.
Prior to all of this, my activity level was negligible. After an ill-fated basketball team tryout in middle school that ended with a pair of broken glasses, I found my niche by joining choir and theatre programs in my school and in my community. I have also always been a voracious reader- these activities never required an outrageous amount of physical prowess from me, and since I wasn’t playing a sport and I found exercise for the sake of exercise to be something that did not come naturally and was very uncomfortable, I just avoided it altogether. The way I saw it, I had plenty of other strengths so there was no need to focus my energy on something I wasn’t very good at.
With a very clear and tangible goal, I now had a reason to care about my weight. I knew I wanted to bring my BMI down the right way- I didn’t want to starve myself or do anything else that would jeopardize my health. So I got a membership at my local LifeTime Fitness and joined their 60 Day Challenge, which was fortuitously starting that very week. I was already eating a vegan diet, but I started counting calories, focusing on plant-based protein, and working out every single day. I was on a mission.
It was hard. But with the help and guidance of a supportive coach, accountability in the form of weekly weigh-ins, and a small group workout environment, I stayed focused. I learned basic bodyweight movements, slowly incorporated weights, and (very) slowly built my cardio endurance. Looking back at pictures from that time makes me so proud of that version of me- the things I was asking my body to do were things it had never done, and things it certainly didn’t want to do. But I did the hard things because I knew I needed to reach the goal. The feelings of empowerment and capability I developed were intoxicating. When it was time to go in for surgery, I had reached my goal and then some- my BMI was down to a 28. I had gone from 44% BF to 38% and had gained 4 lbs of muscle mass. Most importantly, I had grown to love the feeling of challenging my body.
Recovery was a two-week haze of sleep and medication and visitors and bed rest, followed by four more weeks of being desperate to get back to work and the gym. My coach created a modified workout plan that I started executing two weeks after surgery, which involved spending a lot of time on the treadmill, gradually modifying the incline. He also connected me with a Pilates coach who took me through the regimen typically used for women recovering from a C-section.
At six-weeks post-op, I came back to my group fitness class, doing everything I had been doing prior to surgery. There were times I had to listen to my body and take things a bit slower than I was used to, but I was delighted to find that I wasn’t incapable of anything I had been capable of before going under the knife.
Around this time, I started feeling a little lost- I had just reached these two significant goals (getting healthy for surgery, and recovering), and I didn’t have another one lined up. With the support of my team at LifeTime, I began to set my sights even higher. In April, I graduated to the intermediate group fitness class and by June I moved up yet again and began focusing on Olympic lifting. Also, I agreed to sign up and join a large group from our gym at the Michigan Spartan (obstacle course) Sprint in September. I had never done anything like this before, and I was terrified. Fortunately, the Sprint is the shortest of all of the Spartan races, and I had my coach and my teammates with me. I knew I was not going to fail.
After completing the Spartan Sprint (and to my surprise, loving it), I needed another goal- so I decided to shoot for my Spartan Trifecta- completing all three graduated levels of Spartan races in a calendar year. This required some out of state travel, some extra conditioning work, and definitely the help of some supportive teammates. But with the completion of the Spartan Super in Virginia in October and the Spartan Beast in North Carolina in November, I earned my Trifecta (and even ran another Spartan Beast in Florida just last weekend for good measure). My weight, body fat percentage, and muscle mass all fall into healthy ranges for the first time in my adult life, and I have never felt stronger or healthier. The minor inconveniences of drinking a ton of water and taking Tylenol instead of Motrin are such laughably small long-term consequences for having made this life choice that they are barely even worth mentioning.
I am nearly one year out from having donated my kidney, and it is really easy to focus on the fact that this act changed my recipient’s life for the better. He is healthy and able to be present for his family in a way he wasn’t before. But the change that has taken place in me because of donation is just as dramatic. There is no question that this is the best thing I’ve ever done for someone else, but it’s also the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.