Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Susan!

I’ve always been an average Joe. Not especially great at any one thing but always up for anything, which is exactly why in high school, on a dare, I joined the all boy wrestling team as a freshman. I loved it instantly! This lead me to running, all those weigh-ins and cutting weight, meant many miles of pounding the pavement often. My sophomore year I realized I loved competing in anything and everything. In the off season of wrestling I joined the cross country and track teams.

I had found my niche. I love the camaraderie of the team and the pressure of being an individual in all three sports,  always competing against yourself to be better but supporting and cheering on the others. Coming from a small town, I was once again the only girl on the cross country team but loved running with the boys, which made me faster. A broken collarbone during wrestling camp sidelined wrestling the summer after I place 2nd in the state and 4th in the nation for freestyle women’s wrestling. I was disappointed but more focused on running more once it healed.

I ended up being blessed enough to run cross country and track in college not because I was great but more because I had heart. I was never in the front but never minded as I was so excited to be living my dream. My degree was in biology as I always believed I wanted to be in the medical field to help others. My Christian faith had also enforced that. 

Once I graduated college, I did a ride along with the sheriff’s department and I was sold. Never looking back, I joined the Los Angeles Police Department. I love it all; there’s something new everyday and it’s so unpredictable. Most importantly, I got to help others.  To add icing to the cake they had a department women’s running team! I made the team and loved racing with them against other agencies.

It was a few years into my career when I ended up meeting my soon to be husband, Frank.  He was a runner and cyclist. He said there was this thing called a Century and did I want to try it. Always up for something new I told him I had a mountain bike and why not! We road  our mountain bikes from Irvine California to San Diego, something now I look back on and think had I only known you need a road bike for this! He had a road bike but was nice enough to bring his mountain bikes with me. It was such a fun and beautiful ride, I was hooked!

Around the same time, I met my best friend, Laurissa, and fellow runner. She and I were the only girls working nights, I basically told her she had to be my friend, thankfully she agreed! She was much crazier than I. She was a marathoner. Like legit! Somehow she convinced me to join her and in 2012 to so my first Los Angeles marathon with her. It was invigorating! I was hooked again. 

My husband and I married in 2010 and I became the proud bonus mom of two awesome kiddos, Emily and Matthew. They loved the outdoors and adventure as much as we did. We were often running, swimming, biking and playing, aways with a few modifications for Matthew. Matthew was born with a genetic disorder called Marfan Syndrome. Marfan Syndrome is a connective tissue disorder that affects all the organs in your body, especially heart and lungs. Physical activity and contact sports where pretty much out unless modified and monitored. We never wanted Matthew to live with limitations so we always focused on what he could do, not on what he couldn’t, it didn’t diminish his limitations but gave him a more positive outlook.

Frank ran a half marathon with other parents of affected kids. It was during one of these crazy beach races I saw a thing called a triathlon. I told Matthew that day, I’m doing on of those for you Matthew. He was about 13 by then and thought it looked so cool, something a Navy seal would do and he was all about the military at that age. I was excited and pumped until my first pool swim…and that’s when it hit me, “what was I thinking!” But I was committed, even if I drowned before I even got on the bike.

A few months later, wearing gym shorts and a tank top covering my speedo bathing suit, I lined up in Long Beach and waited for the gun to go off. Within in seconds of entering the water I got a foot to the head, lost an ear plug and my goggles fogged. I felt like I was inside a washing machine as I struggled with each stroke but I knew Matthew with my family were cheering me on and I was focused. When I crawled onto land, I wanted to kiss it. Instead I slowly jumped on my borrowed road bike and began to peddle. It was wonderful. The air on my wet head and all the spectators cheering. I found my rhythm. I was even more excited when I threw on my running shoes and took off. When I approached the finish line to see Frank, Emily and Matthew cheering as wore my Marfan Syndrome tank top I could see Matthew’s huge smile.  In that moment the pain didn’t exist anymore. After I finished we all hugged and I gave Matthew my medal as I always did. He added it to his collection of races his dad and I did for him. He said this one was the most special.   

Over the next several years, I continued running half and full marathons with Laurissa, who always inspired me pushing her double jogger loaded with toddlers as I struggled pushing nothing! We spent 100 of hours a year running, talking, laughing and clearing our minds our bond only deepened as wives and moms. Matthew underwent open heart surgery to repair a heart valve, we had a baby girl, and Emily found a love for running. 

Then in 2019, the California Police and Fire Games were local in San Diego. I was excited to have them close so I signed up for the half marathon and the triathlon.  I told Matthew this time I’d train and go further distance for him. He had started to take up an interest in doing a slow bike race/ride. At the end of the day we would sit at the breakfast counter, over dinner and talk about about our adventures of the week. I completed the half marathon at the beginning of June and a few weeks later was the triathlon. Matthew had been busy researching and visiting colleges while I trained. Emily had become a runner by this time also for her high school team and practiced long hours. Our family, we called “Team Garcia” had found our groove.  

Then on June 14, 2019, Matthew had plans to meet his uncle, Robert, to visit the Grammy Museum. Robert called me while I was at work to ask if I’d heard from Matthew that morning. I hadn’t. I called and his phone went to voicemail. I left a message and a text, but nothing. I called Emily at practice and told her when she got home to have Matthew call me. Except the call never came. Instead Emily found Matthew in his bed, appearing sleeping. But he wasn’t. Matthew had died in his sleep of an undiagnosed heart arrhythmia.

Our world stopped. Our daughter was home alone with her brother who was now in heaven. This is what we handle at work, not in OUR life. I don’t remember much, my husband saying don’t hurt myself getting there as he drove, Laurissa talking to me to keep me focused. When I got there I saw the sea of officers hugging my husband and handing our three-year-old a stuffed teddy bear kept in their trunk from children trauma victims. Emily was stoic and in shock. It didn’t feel like real life. Those next few days were a blur.

A few days later, Laurissa told me everyone would would understand and not expect me to compete that weekend in my Olympic distance triathlon. I told her I had to finish what I started for Matthew, something she already knew. She stood with me minutes before I went to the staging, handed me a ring with angel wings and wrote Matthew’s name on my shoulder. I choked back tears through the beginning on the swim and then let it fuel me. We cycled through beautiful Point Loma Cemetery and I felt Matthew. I finished the race for him that day better than I ever could of imagined. I even hit the podium!  

When we returned home, we had a celebration of life to plan. Matthew’s uncle Robert reminded us Matthew was always hyped on LIFE AND HE LIVED. As sad as we were we knew Matthew’s tremendous faith in Jesus meant he was no longer in pain and that he was in the presence of God. So as much as we mourned, we know we will be together again. We made Matthew’s celebration of life as Matthew would of wanted it: a testimony to a life well-lived and purpose driven.

Robert was amazing helping with song selections and being a support to us and our girls, even as he felt a tremendous loss himself of his nephew. He held us up at times when we couldn’t stand. You see, Robert and Matthew had a special bond. They both had hated being “sick kids”. Robert had leukemia as a child twice and underwent chemotherapy. He remembered how his parents and others often looked at him sympathetically. Both Matthew and Robert never wanted that. They never used their illnesses as a crutch and most who knew them never knew what hands they had been dealt. They were the most upbeat and positive people you could met.  

Time went on. A few months later we received a call: Robert was in the hospital. We were confused, he was healthy and fine. Except, he wasn’t. You see, being brave as always, Robert had kept to himself he needed a kidney transplant,  he was in kidney failure. The chemotherapy that saved his life years ago had killed his kidneys. We were stunned.  My husband and I went home after visiting him in the hospital, prayed and filled out the donation questionnaire without telling anyone. Only I passed the screening portion. Once it seemed viable, we shared the news with Robert.  I would be donating my kidney to a stranger so he could get his. He was surprised and thankful; we got to attend an appointment to together. It was a great road trip with lots of laughs.

The surgery date was set for the next Tuesday, then I got a call the Friday before: “Your mammogram came back with a mass. We need to cancel your donation”. I was devastated. Not for me but for Robert. We called the family of sisters and brothers who were excited for the kidney donation and all met at grandma and grandpa’s house. They knew when we walked in with swollen eyes it wasn’t a celebration. Frank and I sat the family down. I broke down and apologized to Robert that I couldn’t donate. That I’d be having surgery but instead of a donation, it would be a breast lumpectomy. My sister in law, a breast cancer survivor, burst into tears too. Robert hugged me and said the important thing is that I was okay. That’s when I realized the kidney donation likely saved my life. At barely 38, I would not of been checked for two more years. So into surgery I went. 

When I came out of surgery and knew they got everything, I called my coordinator at UCLA. She talked it over with the team and said as long as the recipient has full disclosure and said that she still wanted to proceed, I could still do the donation. My recipient agreed. I was stunned and excited! A few months later I was back in surgery donating my kidney just days away from the one year anniversary of Matthew graduating to heaven. To see the full circle of life and know my life had likely be spared just for being a willing vessel to help others is still humbling and overwhelming if I let myself think about it.

I am six months post-operation. I have had some hiccups with blood loss in surgery and am still receiving infusions but doing okay. Jogging and riding my bike around town and just living every day to the fullest the same way Matthew did. I am looking forward to another triathlon. Robert received his kidney last week and is home recovering now also. My daughter had a Bible verse at school not to long ago. “Be kind and compassionate to one another.” Ephesians 4:32. She’s five now and even she gets it. It’s all about helping those in need and uplifting each other. I’d do it all over again to know my daughters lived a life lesson. “More is caught than taught,” and they got to see that verse in action. I realized that this whole process of helping others was the biggest blessing of my life.

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