Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Ellen!

Being a living kidney donor was never something I had planned for my life but sometimes those are the things that change your life the most. Everything lined up so perfectly that I just felt it was what I was meant to do: being home from school because of a pandemic, being able to have the surgery in May with plenty of time to recover for the fall season, and being the needle-in-a-haystack match for a childhood friend. What are the chances? To introduce myself a little, my name is Ellen and I am a senior biomedical science major at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia where I am also a member of the Women’s Tennis team. I played many sports growing up, but found a love for tennis in high school and was lucky enough to find a home at Lynchburg. I also love to run, lift, play almost any sport, and do anything outdoors. 

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Rocking the KDA shirt on a hike about three and a half months post-op.

I was sitting in class in January 2020 and was scrolling through my Facebook (sorry to my professor 🙂 I promise I am a good student!) and saw a post from the mom of a friend I had grown up with on our neighborhood pool summer swim team. The post shared information about his chronic kidney disease and that he needed a transplant. This caught me off guard because I had known him for 10 years and had no idea he had any sort of health issue. My original thought was that I obviously felt bad, but I did not think there was much I could do to help as a college student. A week or so later I went back to the post and saw his blood type and immediately called my mom to ask her what mine was and, sure enough, it was the same. I took a couple of weeks to think about it, and then let my parents know I would be filling out the paperwork just to see if I could even be evaluated.

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Playing tennis pre-donation, Spring 2020.

As most parents would be, they were not thrilled with the idea but I assured them that it didn’t mean I was doing it, it was simply to see if I would even be a match. I knew I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if something bad happened to my friend and I didn’t even try to help. Flash forward a few weeks and I was in Hilton Head for our annual spring break tennis tournament and received a call from the clinic saying they would like for me to come in for testing. For reference, it was March 13th– the day the world shut down. I had found out the day before that we would be sent home after returning from our trip, so it seemed like a perfect time to get tested since the hospital was not far from my hometown. 

The testing took about four hours and I have never seen so much blood leave my body into little tubes, along with the X-rays and CT scans. It was now the end of March and I got a call from my transplant coordinator who said I was a match- a moment that took my breath away! To this point, I still had not even told my friend or really anyone, other than my family and a few close friends, that I had even gotten tested. I then met with a couple of doctors and the surgeon and was told I was a great candidate for the surgery. I think many people thought I took this decision very lightly and was just a young person acting in the moment but in reality, I was doing my research, reading the stories here on Kidney Donor Athletes, thinking of questions, and asking my doctors and transplant coordinator of possible risks and what my life would be like post-donation.

My recipient and I once I went back to work at the pool.

I eventually decided that I could not find a reason to not do it and have always thought it is extremely important to help the people around you in any way possible, so it was time to tell my friend. Everything from there was light speed and the next thing I knew it was May 19, 2020, and I was sitting in the pre-op area about to donate my kidney. It really is a surreal feeling sitting there, healthy and in shape, and knowing you are about to lose it for a while. But not for one minute did I regret my decision. 

My surgery went very smoothly, as did my recipient’s. However, it being in the middle of a pandemic, I was not allowed to have any of my family in the hospital with me so it was a little strange waking up and not having anyone, considering it was my first surgery. Yet, all of the nurses and doctors were so kind and did everything they could to make me comfortable. I will say I was in immense pain for the first couple of days and did spend two nights in the hospital. I was encouraged to walk around. The walking was not too uncomfortable but sitting up in the bed sure was. After getting home, I slept A TON and slowly picked up how much I was walking. One of the most discouraging things that happened, being a college athlete, was the first time I walked to the end of the street and back and immediately took a two-hour nap. I began wondering if I would really recover by the time our fall season came around. 

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In the hospital post-surgery.

That being said, after the first week I was feeling significantly better and was soon walking for 30-45 minutes at a time a few times a day. One thing that happens in some people, but not everyone, was the pain in my shoulders from the gas they pump in you during surgery. This lasted a couple of weeks and was pretty uncomfortable, but eventually disappeared. I don’t really have advice for what I did to make it go away, it just did over time and heat definitely felt nice. It also took me a couple of weeks to be able to sit up in bed without having to roll over or tug on my sheets. Thankfully, I was cleared by the doctors after three weeks to start running again, which surprised a lot of people but the doctors attributed this to me being so young and healthy. At about six weeks I was back to playing tennis and started lifting again- very lightly at first of course. 

Six months post-op feeling better than ever! 

One thing that intimidated me was the amount of attention I received after the surgery with multiple news outlets and my school wanting to publish stories. I am not one that likes to be the center of attention but eventually, I realized that I truly did save my friend’s life and the more times I tell my story maybe it will reach one more person than the last time and perhaps, that person will be inspired to be a donor. I will forever advocate for organ donation now that I see how great of a journey it is! When writing this story, I am about eight months post-op and have truly never felt better. I am lifting heavier than I ever have (I attribute this to losing the weight of my kidney 😉 ) and just feel fit overall.

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My recipient and I about 2.5 weeks post-op at our drive-by our community did for us.

I am ready to start my final season as a Lynchburg Hornet and could not be happier with how life is going. As cliché as it might be, this process changed my life as I have a newfound respect for my body and have gained so much confidence in myself. It’s kind of funny that when you do something solely for the benefit of someone else, somehow it just makes you feel better. If I have learned anything, it’s to take a chance and have a little faith that everything will be okay, and to act in a way that shows love to everyone around you. Our bodies are so much stronger than we know, so why not use them for some good? 

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Back to playing tennis this fall at school.

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