Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Jessica!

My name is Jessica and I am a roller derby player also working on long distance running and I donated a kidney to my partner, Jon, in December 2019 during my university winter break.

I hadn’t planned to spend my winter holidays in the hospital, I was originally supposed to donate in July that same year. Unfortunately, my lingual tonsils ballooned in the weeks leading up to my first date and my nephrologist insisted on having them removed and examined before he would greenlight continuing the donation. It had been a two-year process to get approved and get the surgery scheduled, so it was very difficult to deal with this setback. Jon hadn’t begun dialysis, but his kidney function was getting worryingly low at less than 10%. One of my goals with donating was to help Jon avoid having to go on dialysis as outcomes tend to be better for recipients who can avoid it. So I went ahead with having my tonsils removed in the middle of my fall semester and when results came back clear, I donated 6 weeks later.  

Before the donation, I was a very active member of my roller derby league and had played for over 10 years at the time of my donation. I was active as a kid and teen with running, swimming and triathlon, but derby is the sport that took over my 20s. In addition to practice three times a week, I taught new skaters twice a week and I did a lot of cross-training outside of practice.

It took a long time for me to decide to apply to be a donor because everything I read told me that playing roller derby would likely not be possible after I donated due to risk to the remaining kidney. Jon and I had only been dating a little over a year when I decided to apply, so it really was a difficult prospect to consider that I may have to give up a sport that I loved and that had given so much to me to help him. I’m glad I did make that choice because it makes me incredibly happy now to see how much better he feels and how much more he can enjoy life now that he has my kidney.  

I think I was lucky that recovery after the donation did not feel as hard as I was expecting. I had been more afraid of the pain post-surgery than anything, and the couple days involved more pain than I can remember experiencing at any other time, but it was bearable. The first time you try to stand up (which the nurses want you to do a few hours after you get out of surgery), is the worst. But each time you get out of bed, it gets a little easier. I tried my best to get out of bed regularly and walk around the ward in the hospital which probably helped a lot. 

Each day got better, I went home 3 days after the surgery and 2.5 weeks later I was feeling well enough to return to school after winter break. I had made a lot of plans ahead of time to get accommodations with my school and take a reduced course load if needed, but after the first week back at school I felt strong enough that I could handle my full class schedule without any accommodations.  

At my 8-week follow-up appointment, I asked about playing derby again when my surgeon did not really mention avoiding contact sports. He explained to me that the kidney is well protected by the body and that a lot of impact would be required to severely damage it. He thought it would be unlikely that roller derby would result in such high-impact collisions as to be a high risk for my remaining kidney and that I shouldn’t have to quit derby. I was obviously elated, I had already been back skating lightly while I coached at practice 4 weeks after surgery and was already sorely missing playing. Just before COVID-19 shut down practice in March 2020, I had even snuck in a bit of scrimmaging. I think it was important to accept that roller derby may not be possible in order to feel completely confident in my decision to donate and to consider how I could be involved in my sport without skating, but it felt like an incredible gift to be told by my doctor I could continue playing.

   

After COVID lockdown started, I took up running. My 30th birthday was coming up, 8 months after I had donated, and it seemed like a good time for a big challenge. Even though I hadn’t run since doing a half marathon at age 17 and a couple of short triathlons between ages 16-18, I decided I wanted to do a challenge of 30km roller skating, 30km cycling and 30km running to raise money for the National Kidney Foundation and other charities. I started learning to run again 3 months before my birthday (5 months post-surgery) and on August 8, 2020 I completed my challenge: 1hr 51min for the skate, 1hr 27min for the bike and 4hr for the run.  

I was back skating lightly a month after donation and had to take it easy at first as skating tended to pull at my incision site. I was really busy keeping up with school and working part-time in the semester after my surgery so I didn’t do more than a little skating. I felt ready for more intensive training about 4 months after surgery. Other than being more diligent about my hydration and dealing with some swelling and discomfort around the major incision site, I haven’t found that my donation has affected my ability to train. My next goal is to train for a marathon and then to move on to ultra-marathons and trail races afterwards.  

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