Hello, my name is Danny Ledesma and I donated my spare kidney through the paired-exchanged program at UC Health in Denver, Colorado on October 10, 2018. Shortly after my Grandfather’s retirement (I refer to him hereafter as “Pop”), his health began to rapidly decline, and doctors advised he was experiencing renal failure which would require a transplant. Our immediate family was eager to determine if any of us would be able to donate but one-by-one, several were notified they could not for various reasons.
To set the stage a bit, I must clarify that my grandfather is my father. I was raised in large part by a single mother and four younger sisters but every summer I would get to fly out to Denver from Los Angeles to spend time with Pop, Grandma Susie, and my “Uncle and Aunt” who are more like my siblings as they were only a couple years older than me. The most succinct way for me to describe Pop is that he is loving. When my mother moved my [actual] siblings and me from LA to Denver, we lived with my grandparents for a period of our lives. Every morning before the kids would leave for school, he would tell us “Don’t forget to be a friend to the friendless”. Today, it is what I tell my six- and four-year-old sons.
Coming back to the process — At this point in my life, my wife and I had a two-year-old son and another on the way. We were also house hunting and I had just accepted a new position at work that required me to travel occasionally. Additionally, I was at least 50lbs overweight and was fearful I would not be healthy enough to proceed. I also feared what would happen to my family if something went wrong during the procedure or if I would be limited in any aspect of my life after donating. Thankfully, the Living Donor team at UC Health did a fantastic job of educating me on the procedure and instilled in me the confidence I needed to keep the ball rolling.
The thought of being unable to help my Grandfather because I was unhealthy — due to my own lifestyle choices — was unacceptable and the motivation I needed to accelerate the health journey I started a few months prior. My wife and I adopted a plant-based diet after watching “What the Health” on Netflix and were compelled to do more research. Ultimately, we were convinced a whole-food, plant-based diet would be the best approach for us and our children. We were people who only ran occasionally, never consistently. Soon after we changed our diet, running became more enjoyable for so many reasons, but that’s a whole different story for another time. Fast-forward to September of 2018, I was down 40lbs and about to start training for the Colfax Marathon the following spring. Meanwhile, I completed all the testing at UC Health and was just awaiting the final results of whether or not I could move forward in the process.
At this point, I had reached a level of running fitness so I wanted to push myself one more time before I would embark on the road to recovery that lay ahead. I entered into the Louisville Trail Half Marathon two days before my procedure. My buddy happened to be in town and ran with me. I was proud of the effort I gave in that race. I pushed myself as close to my limit as I ever had before. I ended up placing third in my age group and since it was the first half marathon I ever competed in, I set a personal record!
When I think about the what stands out to me the most throughout the whole experience, it was when I learned I was not only healthy enough to go through with the procedure but that I could donate directly to Pop. I received the call from UC Health while on a business trip in Philly, they informed me I could schedule the procedure. I was ecstatic and immediately called my wife. We had one final conversation about our comfortability with the procedure, and though she was nervous, she was fully behind me. My next call was to my Grandfather. I told him the good news and asked if he would be ready with short notice because I would need to receive approval for medical leave with work and school. I will never forget that conversation. He began to choke up and tell me how thankful he was. As I listened to him express his gratitude, I could no longer fight back the tears. I tucked away in a corner in the office and just tried to be present with my “Dad” who was back home in Colorado.
I was previously told about the paired-exchange program but I had reservations because I wanted part of me to be with Pop and I wanted to be sure that he received a young, healthy kidney. The living donor team assured me he would and that there was an opportunity to be part of an exchange that would benefit 12 recipients. I discussed this with my family and told Pop that I wanted to do this. I just knew in my heart that if I had an opportunity to help more people then I should. Pop agreed. Unfortunately, days before the surgery was to take place, there was a snag and the chain fell apart. I was confused and a bit frustrated, I immediately contacted my coordinator and told them I just wanted to donate directly to my grandfather. My Living Donor coordinator understood and rescheduled me; I had a date. As fate would have it, another opportunity to enter the paired-exchange program came up. This time there would be 12 people involved, 6 donors, and 6 recipients. I agreed but we were also guaranteed to move forward with a direct donation if for some reason this one fell through again.
The morning of the procedure I was ready to rock. We left our little boys with my in-laws the night before and with my wife by my side, we went through intake and I got settled in. About an hour before I was rolled in the operating room, the head surgeon told me the kidney destined for my grandfather had just made it to the hospital, his procedure was scheduled a few hours after mine. I was nervous but all throughout the morning, my phone was blowing up with blessings, words of encouragement, and admiration from friends and family. Other key members of the medical staff introduced themselves to me and one nurse, in particular, told me her own kidney donation story. I knew I was in competent and caring hands.
When I awoke, my wife was brought in to see me and she had a stuffed dog for me from my mother-in-law. I would love to say that it was no big deal and that I was completely comfortable but that was not exactly the case – I had nagging aches in my shoulders. The nurses explained that sometimes gas is unable to escape the body and it can get trapped, causing some discomfort. The stuffed dog was nice to have at that time. Shortly after I was moved into my room and began to feel better. Thanks to the wonderful staff in the transplant ward, I was up and walking around within hours which helped me burp and provided instant relief. I would not be able to see Pop that night, so I made myself as comfortable as I could. The next day I was due to be discharged but as soon as Pop was awake, the nursing staff helped me get over to see him. He was so excited to see me and said he felt better than he had in a long time. It was amazing, it was just like other stories I had read about recipients feeling instantly better. Whether it was due to a physiological change, a feeling of optimism, or both, I could feel his positive energy.
The day after I got home, I walked outside every day for at least an hour or more. Slowly but surely, I was getting faster and more comfortable. Each day was a challenge, but I was doing my best to be patient and bounce back in an aggressive but safe way. My wife and I would go to the rec center together just about every day to help me rehabilitate. Within 17 days, I ran my first 5k at an “Easy” pace. At this rate, I was confident I could compete in Colfax at a level I would be proud of. The next 16 weeks were filled with setbacks and lessons learned and so I am compelled to share. First and foremost, be patient and listen to the doctors when they tell you not to strain yourself for the first several weeks. Secondly, don’t rush to have a carbonated beverage, it may have caused me some unnecessary discomfort. Lastly, lean on your support system. My wife and I are fortunate enough to live nearby our parents. They all took turns coming by to be with our sons while my wife worked and I recovered. It was during this time that I was looking for other kidney donors to connect with but more specifically, athletes. Low and behold, I typed “Kidney Donor Athletes” into Instagram and came across Tracey’s page. I read a couple stories shared by other donors and was blown away by all of them. I was proud to be part of such an outstanding group of badass, caring people.
I will end my story with the reality I experienced. Soon after the procedure, Pop was not doing well. His Nephrologist informed him that the same disease that attacked his old kidneys was attacking his new one too. We felt defeated. Throughout my training for the marathon, I kept telling myself that I needed to prove to Pop that I am just as healthy and well off having gone through with it than I was before. It was the fuel I needed to push through long runs in the freezing cold and early spring heatwaves.
On May 19, 2019, my wife was once again by my side to embark on our next journey – the full Colfax Marathon. I ended up finishing in the Top 50 Men with a time of 3 hours, 10 minutes, and change. At least 15 minutes too slow to qualify for Boston but the feeling of accomplishment was overwhelming.
Since then I have sought to strike a better balance between fitness and “Chillin” but my health will always be a top priority. I’ve passed all my post-op checkups to-date with flying colors and try to make it to an occasional happy hour with other kidney donors to not only spread awareness but also enjoy the company of some incredible human beings. Unfortunately, Pop’s recovery has not gone well but he does have good days. He gets to see his great-grandsons grow and does his best to conserve his energy for when they are around. Sometimes I have to remind him that I would do it all over again. While a new kidney may not have been the silver bullet Pop needed for his health, I am thankful he was willing to try because I most certainly living a happier more fulfilling life having gone through it.