Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Ashlie!

I’m not a very superstitious person or one that really believes everything happens for a reason, but every once in a while it just feels like things are falling into the place they belong. One evening around Halloween in 2018, my husband and I were living with my brother and his girlfriend while our new house was under construction and I saw a local news article that said something like “Local woman needs new kidney”. The article described how this woman, who’s a few years younger than me, started feeling really exhausted as she approached college graduation. It talked about how doing almost anything, like going for a walk, was really tiring. I am a very active person, so the idea of living like this was just not acceptable to me. I run half marathons, hike mountains, lift heavy weights, ride my bike whenever I want. Who could live without being able to do that?!  I quickly applied online at the Mayo Clinic’s website and announced to my family in the room, “Hey guys, I just saw this woman needs a kidney and applied to get tested. Anybody else gonna do that?”  

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It turns out that “this woman” was my brother’s girlfriend’s college roommate. “You met her at our barbeque on Labor Day!” Sophie reminded me. That seemed like a funny coincidence, but it didn’t matter to me that we had some kind of connection. I just kept thinking about how miserable I would be if I didn’t have the energy to go for a walk with my dogs or run whenever I wanted or ride my bike and feel the wind in my face. I had the chance to help this person resume doing all those things. I went to work and told my boss that I was going to get tested to be a kidney donor. In hindsight, I think it’s odd that I would tell a bunch of people that I wanted to do this before I even got my blood tested. I started saying things like “if I am a match…”.

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But while I felt like this was definitely the right thing, I worried just a little about what would happen if I was a match? If I did this, would I still be able to run? Ride my bike 30 miles to work? Lift heavy weights in the gym? What if I ended up being the one who couldn’t be active anymore? This is when I started googling and found the Kidney Donor Athlete website, which confirmed for me that people can donate kidneys and still be super active! I reached out to Tracey and she hooked me up with several living donors to talk with.

Fast forward to February, and it turns out that I am a match! I went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN for three days of tests, including an EKG, 24-hour blood pressure monitoring, collecting my urine in a gallon jug, and meeting with multiple counselors. To be honest, the counselors were the worst part of it; they kind of made me feel like I shouldn’t be allowed to decide what to eat for breakfast, let alone whether or not to donate an organ. But I kept in mind that it was their job to make sure that I was making this decision on my own and could live with any potential negative consequences (which are highly unlikely but still possible). 

The possibility that really unnerved me was the idea that being a living kidney donor could possibly be classified as a “pre-existing condition” that could make it hard to get health insurance if the Affordable Care Act was repealed (this was being widely discussed at the time). I did a lot of research and even contacted my state representatives because I heard that a bill was being considered in Vermont that would protect people with pre-existing conditions even if the ACA was altered. With the reassurance that this was a high priority for our state and that most amendments to the ACA proposed keeping these protections anyway, I decided this was worth the risk.

Turns out we were a match, and our transplant was scheduled for about 3 weeks later!

While my donor and her family were able to pay for my travel expenses for testing (we live in Vermont, the Mayo Clinic is in Minnesota), I didn’t want them to have to bear this burden for my husband and me when we traveled for the transplant. My coworkers helped me organize an office-wide “Cookies for Kidneys” bake-off fundraiser and organ donation awareness event and contributed to a GoFundMe account. Together we raised enough funds to cover travel expenses for my husband and I. One of the awesome side effects of this process was finding out just how supportive and amazing my coworkers were!

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Once we decided the transplant was happening, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the experience. I talked to several  Kidney Donor Athletes that Tracey connected me with. I heard some stories of how painful the experience was, but I felt like I could handle that and understood what the “worst” might be. I think hearing other people’s experiences and preparing for the level/lengthy period of discomfort was super helpful. It was also just really nice to have so many people tell me how great living donation was for them; when you tell people you want to donate an organ, some have negative reactions because they fear for your wellbeing. The other living donors I’ve spoken with were overwhelmingly positive and helped me feel like I was going the right thing! They prepared me for the pain and discomfort but also the positive outcomes!

We went in for surgery prep at 8am on March 18, 2019. I definitely hoped that none of my hospital staff had partied too hard on St. Patrick’s Day! We got delayed by another emergency surgery, so by the time our surgeries were over it was late afternoon. I felt super nauseous and like I had an elephant sitting on my collar bone–the gas they put in your abdomen to make space during surgery made it hard for me to breathe. I did a lot of sleeping (or maybe it’s better described as “being semi-conscious”), but my heart rate is generally low and more so after surgery, so every time I dozed off the heart monitor alarm went off. Luckily after the first night they decided I didn’t need that anymore.

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Very early the next morning I was up and walking around, which was hard but definitely made the gas pain in my chest feel better so I wanted to do it as much as I could. I kept walking and finally was able to eat something for the first time at lunch. I got to go visit my recipient, whose new kidney (which we named “Billie the Kid(ney)” was already working like a champ!

The second day after surgery, the day I got discharged, was actually the worst from a gas/chest pain standpoint. I told my husband I didn’t know how I would fly on a plane in a couple days with this much pressure in my chest. Thankfully, it subsided substantially after I was discharged and spent more time walking around. We spent another two days in Minnesota and finally came home. Note to anyone flying after surgery: give yourself WAY more time for the airport than you think you need. Due to several delays in getting to the airport, we ended up basically running to make our flight. I can tell you that it was not my most fun run!

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Every day felt better and better. By day four I was walking full miles on the treadmill and was up to about an hour of speed walking within a week. I started adding running intervals at the two-week mark (only on the treadmill so that if I got tired I could stop easily), and by three weeks I was back to running 5+ miles at a time. There were some days that I felt tired, but I was honestly surprised by how good I felt. By six weeks post-surgery, I started doing some bodyweight exercises and stretches to prepare my body to resume lifting weights under the direction of a physical therapist. At week 10, I ran a half marathon. It was the first hot day of the summer and I was not particularly well-trained so it was a humbling effort–but I did it! Thankfully I ran it with several friends who reminded me that just the fact that I ran 13 miles ten weeks after donating a kidney was pretty awesome! I kept right on running and lifting after that, even training for a full marathon last summer. I ended up dropping down to the half marathon on race day due to a cold–but I ran my personal best that day (about six months after donation)!

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I still feel great and never even noticed that I am a uni-kidney! I haven’t changed much about my lifestyle since I already was very active and eat a lot of vegetables, but I do make staying hydrated a bigger priority and am conscious of my electrolyte intake during long runs. We recently celebrated our one-year kidneversary, and both my recipient and I are doing great. I have gained a new friend and learned to better appreciate all the amazing things my body can do. I would encourage anybody to look into living organ donation and would sum up the experience with my new favorite quote: “Look at giving not as a duty, but as a privilege” by John D Rockefeller. I feel truly privileged to have been able to do this!

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