Even though I never imagined being an organ donor until passing away, I am one now.
People can survive with just one healthy kidney, so someone with two healthy kidneys may choose to donate one. This is called a living donor transplant. I am a living donor.
Being an athlete since the age of 4, I know to my core, and have for a while, that as a shorter-than-average person, I could be fit and muscular even if, no matter how much I thought about it, I would not be average height or tall! With that in mind, descriptions of me were often “underdog”, “dark horse” and “sparkplug”.
Golf and tennis were my sports. If that sounds like a country club upbringing, it is well disguised! Having been born in Flint, Michigan, those sports meant riding a bike or hitching rides to where I could play during the few months they were playable. Still, not knowing anything different, it was such fun to learn, be outside and in some instances, win! Swimming was next, and that could be done indoors, and having a spirit of little fear and much curiosity had me going out for almost anything and everything!
And then, one year after graduating University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, I found myself awakened in a hospital at age 22 after having my gall bladder removed. As I waited for a tech to assist me in getting out of bed, I made the commitment to myself to “go for it” in life, business, sports and relationships. If I was low fear prior to that moment, I edged closer to fearless in those waking seconds!
Eight weeks and one day post-surgery, I started skydiving. When I became one of the first females in the country to call on General Motors dealerships, it meant covering Louisiana and Texas, and skydiving, golf, and tennis lead to friendships and memory-making. When I would move to the next location and buy a house, I’d ship my clubs and parachute via FedEx when I flew to the destination ahead of my home furnishings. I even took a week-long running course in New Mexico once, as my body is not a “born runner’s body”.
I’ve come back from a broken leg and ankle, a complete calf tear (including the gastrocnemius is the larger calf muscle, forming the bulge visible beneath the skin, and the soleus, the smaller, flat muscle that lies underneath) and been in a wheelchair. With a couple hundred skydives, hang gliding, a triathlon and many races under my belt, so to speak, staying fit and healthy has been a priority of mine all 51 years of my life. Still, I did not realize how my focus on performance and performing my best would lead me to be a volunteer donor for someone I’d only incidentally met at chamber events!
The two most common reactions are “Why would you do that for a stranger?” and “Wow, that is selfless”. While some of you know that “Why” questions create defensiveness, I simply smile and share back the truth – my thought was “Why not? What would be the reason I wouldn’t assist another human being if I could, even with the risks – I would hope someone would do that for a loved one of mine if it came to that”. I would also say, “As it can seem selfless, I look at it as self-aware, meaning I was aware that I could make this impact and, wanting to give of myself, I was aware of the potential complications. Yet with that awareness and desire, going through it did not seem like less, it gave me a chance to give more.”
A few “reveals” from my experience include:
- It takes more than a matched blood type to be a kidney donor (admittedly, I hadn’t thought about it before this year, and if pressed, blood match would have been what I would have guessed was how people donated a kidney). While that is the start, there are such an array of tests from urine to tissue typing to kidney function and stress tests that the amount of time it takes is not terrific. It requires scheduling and planning to spend work hours getting poked and prodded!
- 650,000 is the number of Americans facing end-stage renal disease .
- 468,000 is the number of Americans on dialysis, which is what is required if no kidney match is found .
- There are approximately 4 times the number of people in need of kidneys than there are available kidneys .
- Various sources give statistics on being a match and it is over a 1 in 100,000 chance a non-relative will be a match for donating a kidney (I was for the recipient, Debra), and yet there are paired exchanges, or ‘kidney swaps.’ During a kidney swap, transplant recipients who have willing live donors essentially swaps donor organs. For patients who have a willing but incompatible donor, the strategy allows people who need a kidney to receive an organ that is a match. How cool is that!?!?
With all that in mind, through the entire 5-month process, I have been and continue to be grateful to be ahead of the statistics. Based on the experience with my transplant team and the Kidney Donor Athletes group, so much of this is due to the state of mind and health I was in pre-donation, as others in that encouraging group have shared similar experiences. Above all else, health and happiness are foundational for everything.
Beyond all of the questions/reactions, answers, and data, four key areas strike me as learning lessons and experiences that were not expected prior to becoming a living donor on 8/6/2020 (yes, just over two months ago). They are here below as I am in the “HEALING” phase of change with this decision and donation.
Pain & discomfort. The pain was FAR LESS than ever imagined, and the discomfort was far different than anticipated. The pain is gone. I had pain, true pain, at a low level through the 4th day only. It was a 2/5 at most. I am grateful for that, and still working through the discomfort. The tugs on the skin, the overdoing it at times brings that discomfort right back. It will likely all subside. Other donors say they have some discomfort forever when lifting weights or pushing their limits. The protrusion in my lower abdomen feels strange, admittedly, and yet the four scars are not a big deal to me. The surgeon said to think of them as a “Badge of Honor” and still, many people state they won’t go through the process due to the scaring. That never crossed my mind that a few marks for life would keep me from contributing to someone else’s extended life and quality of life.
Sleep & rest. Never underestimate the need for sleep (no, not speed, sleep!). Prior to the donation, I was someone who could sleep at the drop of a hat. If I wanted to, and I did, sleeping through an opening act at a concert while people screamed around me was something that was not only possible but was done. Before donating my right kidney, I trained myself to sleep on my back (before face/stomach sleeping was typical). Even though that habit was formed, sleep was the most strange and disrupted. I highly recommend ensuring anyone who has surgery get or have a recliner first. A recliner was my resting place. It was a place to get a lift where needed. We ended up buying a sleep number bed after a week of the crazy battle to get zzzz’s and it seems to be working. I was a huge proponent of 20-minute power naps previously and I still am now only they are in “Zero G” on the sleep number! The tiredness was shocking and still kicks my but even though I am working out, eating clean, and walking and/or running 35-50 miles a week.
People & personal. People have been spectacular supporters. The generosity of strangers has been heart-warming. The consistency and kindness has inspired me, even as someone who reaches out a lot, to do more! Some people have been radio silent, and that works, too. I will not be upset and yet, I will be excited to see some people more than others. Going through the 4-part process of change that I refer to as Impact/Recovery/Healing/Excellence, I am in healing and plan to move through to excellence and achieve it. The people who will be there will be hugely appreciated. Every card, text and message of thoughtfulness personally was a point for pushing. People say “Don’t take things personally” but we are persons, so how else will we take them? The personal touches people gave me were, and are, valued! Michael, my husband, was an outstanding support and having a team of 8 communicating out to others was reassuring, too. Now, Michael forgets that it may take a while for me to get up or lifting something is still something to consider before quickly doing it, so our joke is “You know I only have one kidney, and it has only been X number of weeks, right?” We both nearly forget at times and that is good, as it is becoming part of how we as people navigate it!
Identify & Identity. As proud as I am to identify as someone who gave a kidney, a #OneBeaner, and to be an Organ Donor, a living organ donor at that, being any of these labels is not my sole identity. Yes, this has changed my life and habits such as water intake, bathroom planning, protein lessening, getting up and down from a chair and other things that will be incorporated as my now-moving-forward-self, but they are aspects of how I function and not my only function or focus. I want people to see me as Debbie Lundberg and all I do and being a kidney donor is something which I identify with and smile about in hopes of encouraging others.
To date, two months post-donation, I have moved quickly through the initial process of healing from the donation. The goal of running a 5K by the one-month mark and over 4 miles consistently by this point have been good challenges that have been met. Weights are coming back and doing abdominal exercises are now part of the routine, too. The numbers on the dumbbells may be much smaller and the crunches time is shorter but these too will strengthen.
I hesitate to say the form will rebuild, as a #onebeaner and #kidneydonorathlete, it’ll be a pleasure to explore how my mind, body and spirit all come together to perform at my best right now and in the future! It is a continual reminder not to look back, only forward and to see my competition solely as myself as each day is a new chance to strengthen all three: mental, physical and emotional aspects of who I am!
A hope I have is to encourage people to be health-minded, and another is to be your own health-advocate, as well as certainly wishing others will consider being a living donor once reading that the process of donating life is something you can successfully use the change strategy to work through with success! My risk-welcoming self has not necessarily changed, and the risk/reward factor is in check. The precautions I take now are similar to those I took prior to being a donor in reminding myself that when the reward it the focus, it puts the risk in check! Sometimes I simply smile in gratitude for getting to run with the Olympic torch, to be married to such a supportive hubby, and yes, even to get to be someone with one kidney!!
The lessons will surely continue to reveal themselves and grow while the scars go away and the protrusion in my abdomen lessens and, forevermore, I will be amazed by and appreciative of the opportunity I had and accepted to change a life!