Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Karen!

I’ve always been that girl who played just about every sport that was available to her. When I was little my days were spent on either softball fields or volleyball courts. As I got older, I turned to activities like karate, pilates, and running. I am now the owner of RunFit MKE, a studio in Milwaukee’s Third Ward that offers personal training, running coaching, and nutrition coaching services. I didn’t really take up distance running until 2013 but have since completed 11 full marathons, one ultramarathon, and dozens of shorter distances since then. You could say I’m hooked!

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My oldest sister Nancy was diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis and type 1 diabetes at the age of 13. I was just six years old and remember what a difficult time it was for our family but especially for her. When she was in her early 20’s she was then diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. I knew then, at a young age, that if she ever needed a kidney I would want to give her one of mine. We learned in June 2018 that she was in the final stage CKD. It took nearly a year for her to complete all of the appointments and tests necessary to be listed on the registry. At that point, me and my four other brothers and sisters (and even one sister-in-law!) all got tested to see if we might be possible matches – and we ALL were! It was a miracle!

The doctors started the donor testing process with me, having looked at my healthy lifestyle and physical well being. After months of testing, I was approved to donate and our surgery date was set for November 29, 2019. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the following phrase, “You are going to recover so quickly because you are so fit.” So that was my expectation. 

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The surgery went extremely well, and Nancy’s body started using the kidney right away. That was the best news I could hear when I woke up after surgery in a great deal of pain. I’ve read a lot of stories about donors who didn’t experience much pain if any. This is not one of those stories. During the testing process, the transplant team discovered that I had two arteries running to my left kidney, the one they typically like to transplant. Because of this, they needed to use my right kidney which added a slightly different twist to the recovery process. Instead of having one larger incision across my lower abdomen, and four laparoscopic incisions, I had five. The reason for the extra incision was because they needed to “move” my liver out of the way to get at the kidney.

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The pain I felt was not only incisional but deeper – where my liver was handled and deep in my abdominal muscles. I had an extremely difficult time getting out of bed, standing up straight, and taking deep breaths. I was able to visit my sister by being pushed in a wheelchair the day following surgery. It was the happiest and most emotional moment. The tears just kept coming. Seeing Nancy doing so well, after decades of battling major diseases, gave me a sense of self I’ve never had before. I felt like I had served my purpose on Earth. I didn’t get to visit long before the pain became too much and back to my hospital room I went. I spent two nights in the hospital before being released.

For me, it was a long road back to a state of fitness. Walks were usually a mile a day at most for the first few weeks. I didn’t even attempt to run until 8 weeks following surgery and it was difficult for me to make it a quarter mile without being wiped out. In the past, I would have pushed myself to go further and faster much more quickly. After donation, I had a far better appreciation and greater respect for my body and allowed it to dictate what I should do. If it didn’t feel good to run, I wouldn’t. If I felt any strain in my abdomen when I was attempting any activity, I would stop. As I said, it was a long road, but six months later, after a lot of patience, not only do I feel like I’m back, but even more fit than I was before the surgery. I am currently running 35-40 miles per week, strength train three days per week, and have energy to burn!

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Mentally and emotionally I am a different person than I was before surgery. It truly changed my life to donate life to my sister. I feel far more comfortable in my own skin, don’t judge my body by looks, and don’t look at races as “good” or “bad” depending on my time. I am so impressed that my body can do what it has and I am grateful for any opportunity to move – regardless of speed.

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