Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Jason!

What brings me here are the three most important things I’ve done in my life:

  • I married Amy, a sweet, honest, curious, clever and adorable woman, who has lived with type 1 diabetes for a long time.
  • We adopted Holly, the funniest human being I have ever known when she was 3 months old. She’s 8 years old at the time of this writing.
  • Nearly five years ago, when diabetes took its toll on Amy’s native kidneys I donated my left kidney to her (It’s a miracle we were a match).

Donating the kidney prevented Amy from needing dialysis and preserved the integrity and health of our family of 3.

Prior to donating the kidney, I had an on-again, off-again relationship with formal exercise, though my home life was naturally fairly active other than my sedentary job in IT.  There would be a months-long string of workouts punctuated by injury, common illness, insomnia or other ways life gets in the way.

My recovery after donating was pretty easy compared to other donors I mentored. I was cleared to drive after 2 weeks instead of the month I was initially told it would be. I healed using only Tylenol since I wanted to avoid constipation that would come with narcotics at a time that my digestive system was slowly starting up again after the anesthesia used in the transplant.

jason-amy-holly-bike-ww-boardwalk-2014

In the 3 years following surgery, my attempts at exercise were still casual at best, occasionally doing a Wii Fit or EA Sports Active workout in the basement. The effort was mostly on-again, off-again through that time, as they had been in the past. My physical activities were mostly with the family on weekends: trips to the ice skating rink in the winter and the town pool in the summer with the occasional tennis game sprinkled in.

jason and family ice skating

Amy’s post-transplant experience was marked by spikes in anxiety and depression, conditions that existed prior but had been controlled with medication. After receiving the transplant and immunosuppressants, her nervous system reacted differently to the medicine she was taking and a series of psychiatrists made educated guesses as to which medicines would right her state of mind. The anxiety became immobilizing for her, and Amy had the first of what would be four stays in a hospital psychiatric unit to have medicines adjusted under the hospital’s observation and protection.

This set of circumstances ratcheted up my own anxiety to the point that I twice feared I was having a heart attack or other cardiac event I didn’t understand, so I became an emergency room patient on those two occasions. The second time I got a cardiologist and a diagnosis of a probable anxiety attack.

My cardiologist suggested I exercise to ease the anxiety. My therapist had also suggested I engage in some form of self-care. I politely agreed with both that these would be good ideas someday. I was also struggling with sleep maintenance insomnia, which I believe I’ve had all my adult life. I would wake up in the middle of the night and feel alert enough to get out of bed and surf the web for 2-3 hours. Then I would try to salvage what’s left of the night’s sleep for about an hour before I have to get up for work, hitting snooze as many times as I could get away with.

So, a few weeks after a conversation with my therapist I asked myself “What if,” as in What if tomorrow morning is that ‘someday’? What if I get up early to exercise even if I had lousy sleep the night before? What if that turns out to be a good investment in my next night of sleep?

boxing

I got up early one winter morning, exhausted again from inadequate sleep. I went down to the basement and got on the treadmill to run. About 2 minutes in, I remember saying out loud to myself “Oh, I am not enjoying this!” Alternating treadmill days with free weight lifting days didn’t sit that much better with me at first. I was reluctant to exercise early in the morning but kept an open mind to see the experiment through.

jason weights

As spring approached I wondered if I’d prefer running outside over the treadmill – at least the scenery would change; at least I’d get fresh air. I waited for the temperature to warm up above 50 degrees, then I ran outside – and promptly felt sharp pains in my inner ankle and knee after just my first two-mile run. Nope, I didn’t enjoy running outside like that!

So I tried something else new – cycling outdoors, figuring it’s zero-impact. I alternated cycling days with weight training days. I turned out to enjoy my early morning rides through town and the experience of trying something new for the first time. The cycling was also helping gradually rehab my ankle and knee.

Jason w bike

By early summer I was ready to go for walk-run sessions and within a few weeks, I was able to handle fully running with minimal pain. Now my fitness routine was a rotation of four days:

  • Weight training (upper body)
  • Cycling
  • Weight training (legs/shoulders)
  • Running

I was gradually increasing my running mileage, topping out at 5-mile runs in the early fall. I wanted to challenge myself with a 5K race that was taking place in October. It had been over a decade since my last 5K.

So, without any formal running training (no knowledge of tempo runs, hill repeats) – just base mileage – I ran the 5K and finished 4th in my age group. I loved the communal experience of running with the pack. I loved the moral support of the city residents and police officers along the sidelines. Most of all, I loved the greeting I got from Amy at the finish line. I wondered what would happen if I engaged in a proper training regimen for my next (longer) race.

Jason-5k-2019

At present time I’m training for a 10K race in the spring (though working my way back from a strained calf – patiently, with cross-training). I’m in the lottery for the New York City Marathon, to become a first-time marathoner at age 50 and with one kidney. I have the blessing of my nephrologist and cardiologist; they’d like for me to get my annual physical as well. Of course, learning Tracey’s story gives me encouragement that I can do this while teaching me that I will need to pay more attention to hydrating and fueling than if I hadn’t donated.

Fueled by Doughnuts Running Club pre-dawn run 2019

I’ve joined the Fueled by Doughnuts Running Club in Montclair, NJ. The group runs really intensify my experience of running before dawn. I’m enjoying my morning runs way more than I did that first day on the treadmill. And although I still do wake up in the middle of the night, I manage to stay in bed with the lights off and give myself the opportunity to get more sleep at night. I believe I do sleep much better now with this level of exercise. I’m certain that my anxiety is much better controlled, which helps keep my best self showing up in my family life and encourages Amy’s and Holly’s best selves too.

fueled by doughnuts runners in clubhouse

My fitness routine has also given me a lot more energy for my performances of live music for kids and families in the band Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam (Amy and Holly are also in the band!). Speaking of music, I’ve also submitted a video audition for the Lyrics for Life event in the Transplant Games of America, taking place in my home state of New Jersey this summer. Amy, Holly and I also plan to walk/run the 5K at the Games.

My mantra while on the run is “Run happy.”  And when I think of the life Amy, Holly and I have because my kidney is working in Amy, it’s easier to do just that.

Jason Amy Holly Onstage at Stone Pony 10-25-15

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