It all began after a run. I often “ran” into my aunt and uncle because they lived above me in our Chicago apartment building, but this time I wasn’t greeted with a very happy, “hello”. Panting and gassed, I tried my best to gather the information they relayed to me.
“Did you hear about Liz?”
“Where is she traveling to this time?!”
“No, Amy, she went into renal failure. She’s on dialysis. We just found out.”
Liz is my cousin and godmother. She moved to Arizona a while back and though we hadn’t had much communication between us in a few years, she is still one of my favorite humans. Hearing this news made my heart sink real fast, and come back up again. I texted her, “Hey, I’ve got an extra kidney if you need it?”
The thing is, after sending that message, my kidney already felt like it was hers. We decided to talk the next day on the phone and the day went on. When I received her phone call the following day she started with simple information that needs to be known before I started any testing.
“We have to have a compatible blood type to even be considered.”
“What’s your blood type?”
“B positive….. what’s yours?”
“B POSITIVE, LIZ.”
You know that feeling of lightheadedness you get from holding your breath? Imagine that tenfold. I felt like I was in a dream, and then came the waterworks.
Our lives changed in that moment, but if you’re in the shoes of the recipient, your excitement doesn’t really come until after the surgery. Liz’s daughter, Natalie, told me they didn’t want to get their hopes up because anything could happen, but I’m a runner. When I see a finish line, I’m going to get there no matter what. I took a look at my life, and though I had ran a few half and full marathons before, I wanted to make sure I was in great physical and mental shape before even getting tested.
Once I got my life situated with a new job and healthier habits, we began testing. At first there were a few blood tests that I had to ship to the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix from Chicago. It was a process and when it came to our teams having their final meeting to determine if we should move forward, that time felt like an eternity. I remember like it was yesterday, in the car with my brother and his girlfriend, I got the call from my donor nurse. Our blood and cells were compatible and that I should pack my bags for testing in Arizona.
Thinking about the tests now, it was a breeze, but in reality they were hard. For some people it’s spread out over some time, but I was only in Arizona for a week so everything had to be crammed within that window. I had appointments beginning early in the morning to the afternoon every day, and I am so thankful for how well-organized the Mayo Clinic is, but nothing prepared me for how intense the next 5 days would be.
On the first day, I fainted from the blood draw. They had about 12 vials sitting next to me and I told the nurse just by looking at them that I was going to faint by the end. I even came with a spare change of clothes because this usually happens when more than 3 vials are taken. (good to know your body!) She told me I would be fine, and just like that, on the last vial I couldn’t even say my name. It sounds more scary than it is, though. Med tech came in and shoved juice and peanut butter in my mouth and I was back up (albeit drenched in sweat) and ready for the next step. The next 3 days went the same: blood, urine tests, pee in this jug, wear this monitor, we need more blood and urine, oh, and more blood. By the end of day four, I had just one more easy day to go, but to be honest? I was EXHAUSTED. My arm had turned into a pin cushion and I was tired of peeing. I got into my car and I sobbed. I sobbed hard. At first it was for me. Woe is me, I felt a level of exhaustion I had never felt, but gears shifted when I tried putting myself in Liz’s shoes. She has to get poked by needles all the time. She has to sit for hours and hours a week getting blood filtered through a machine. She is tired like this ALL THE TIME. It’s so easy to focus on ourselves when we think a situation is bad, but the truth was, Liz definitely had it worse, and if feeling like shit for a week meant getting our spritely Liz back, then I needed to BUCK UP.
On my last day of testing I would be told if we were a match. I waited three hours to meet with the doctor who would tell me yes or no. He came in. He sat down. He apologized for wasting three hours of my life because we were damn near a sibling match and we were cleared. LIZ WAS GETTING HER KIDNEY.
I flew home and we began planning. Testing was in May and we were going to do surgery in June, but last minute Liz came down with Valley Fever, so it was postponed. I decided why not make the most of this time! I signed up for the Lakefront 50/50 and ran the 50K in October. What an experience it was! This was my first ultra, but I was approaching it like a marathon. I had some stomach issues the morning of, and had hoped it would go away by the time I got to the start line. It didn’t. I ran 15 miles in pain and felt so sick because I couldn’t get fuel in. My mind was looking for ways to keep going but my body was telling me to stop. I texted a friend for advice and she said, “why don’t you just walk for a while?” This may sound dumb, but I didn’t even think of that option. It’s a race, right? I walked to the next checkpoint, sat down, had some snacks and Nuun, and ten minutes later my day turned back around. I decided to take it easy and walk/run the rest of the race. I would run for 50 minutess, and then walk for 10. I finished just under 7 hours and felt awesome. It wasn’t about time, it was about enjoying my very long run, and that mental shift has changed my running forever.
Fast forward, and it’s December. Liz was cleared for surgery and I was headed to AZ for some alone time with her and last minute hikes/runs before our big day. I saw her on her last day of dialysis too. That was a moment and a smile I’ll never forget. Learning her experience with Renal Failure has given me such a different perspective on how we take our bodies for granted. I really focused on that when I went on a solo hike up Superstition Mountain, and I reflected on why I was doing this. It never felt like a hard decision. It’s like seeing someone without a lunch and you offer half your sandwich. It was that easy.
Both her and my parents flew down to help us post surgery, and they were such great support. We had a house full of family, and we were ready.
December 14, 2016. We woke up super early, headed to the Mayo Clinic, got into our gowns, and we did the damn thing. I never felt doubt. My kidney belonged to Liz, and to finally give it to her felt… well, rather painful, but overall AMAZING.
I was told I woke up a few times asking the same questions, “How did it go? How is Liz?” followed by going back to sleep. When I came to (and remembered) I asked how she was? How did it go? My kidney took to her right away. It started working almost immediately after the transplant and hearing this made me cry as hard as my body would allow. What a day, man. My surgeon came in shortly with his team and said the removal went amazing, and that my kidney was so PINK! (He also noted that my abs looked amazing from the inside and I think that’s a very high compliment even if I didn’t have a six pack to show on the outside!) Everyone said Liz was in very high spirits and her energy levels were through the roof. Mine on the other hand, were the opposite. I had a hard time eating, I threw up on myself (bless all of the nurses), and I was in immense pain. The only thing I could really do was sleep, and sleep I did. The nurses were amazing, and tried to get me to move around early in the day, but I just couldn’t. I felt so terrible and my back hurt a lot. My energy came in bursts of about 4 minutes and then I would fall back asleep. But around 1am I woke up absolutely needing to walk. I startled my parents sleeping in the room by calling a nurse and trying to get up. I just needed to move, and that started the ball rolling for my recovery.
The following day I was cleared to leave and was able to visit Liz in her room! She looked beautiful and her energy levels kept me from falling asleep for about 20 whole minutes! Once I started getting tired we worked our way to the car and the next 5 days were a blur. I slept about 20 hours a day for those 5 days. I had a very hard time eating and going to the bathroom (#2). I couldn’t tell you when Liz came home, but it was great seeing her and being able to relate to someone about the pain. We carried pillows around with us everywhere for when we coughed, or attempted to laugh (pro tip). It was rough, but we did it!
By day 7, I was feeling ambitious and walking around the house a lot more, using the bathroom normally, and sleeping less. This was also around the time I had my first sneeze. Remember the pillow? Remember I said to carry it EVERYWHERE? I was peeing when I sneezed and I didn’t have it with me, and thought I was going to damn near bust myself open! Thankfully I didn’t, but I did carry that pillow with me from then on.
Two weeks post surgery and I was cleared to fly home. I lived alone at the time so I was very surprised at how well I was able to move around and get things done. My nurse had told me being active before surgery definitely helps with speeding up the recovery process. By week 4 I was on a treadmill running again. It was a very slow process, but after 8 weeks I was running, getting back to body weight exercises, and back at work! My worst struggle was fatigue. I got tired a lot and if I didn’t get (at the very least) 8 hours of sleep a night, I was useless. So, I rearranged my schedule to make sleep a priority.
6 months later, I had my first follow up with the Mayo Clinic and I was feeling GREAT. I was told my fatigue could last up to 2 years post surgery, but since I had worked that into my schedule already, I didn’t see it being an issue. When I got to Arizona, I ran a trail half marathon in Pine Top the day before the appointment. I was worried I pushed myself too far because after the race I had to pull into a gas station to take a nap in my car, but my results came back with great results! My creatinine levels were impeccable, and my nurse said this was surprising since I had just ran the day before. I was over the moon especially because I had another half marathon in Seattle in 2 weeks! I remembered what I learned with my 50k: I took it easy with each race and soaked it all in.
It has been 3 amazing years since our surgery. Since then, I’ve ran a handful of half marathons, 2 marathons, a few 5ks, and now I’m finally going the distance! I wanted to give my body time, and I don’t know if it needed this much time, but I am definitely a better (and smarter) runner for it! I have my next 50k lined up for April, and then a 50 miler later in the year! My fatigue (anything over a half marathon) stayed with me for about 2 years post surgery, but has since balanced out. I stay mindful to give my body rest when it needs it, and to keep very hydrated. That means a lot of water with my coffee, and making sure to hydrate more on my long runs. Electrolytes are my bestest friend when it comes to distance running!
Life is meant to be lived doing the things we love with the people we love most.
I’m so thankful to be able to give that back to Liz!