Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Chris!

Since I was a teenager, I always felt I was destined for some higher purpose.  Something bigger than me. Selfless and worthwhile on a big scale. It took forty years but in February of 2019, I finally discovered what that purpose was. Standing in my kitchen, a news clip on the TV caught my attention. As I watched a woman talk about how she donated a kidney to save a stranger’s life, I was frozen in my tracks. I was overcome as I had never been and probably never will be again. Looking back, I think God was tapping me on the shoulder and whispering in my ear, “This is your calling”. As soon as the piece ended, I looked at my wife and said, “I am doing that!” Thirty minutes later, I pressed send and my application was on its way to UC Health Denver Kidney Transplant Center.

My name is Chris Sullivan, I am 51 years old, and I donated my left kidney on September 30, 2020.  My donation was non-directed and it started a 3-person chain. My kidney found a new home in a 33-year-old “Ron” in Wisconsin. We have emailed a few times but have yet to meet. When I began this journey, one thing that was important to me was the ability to positively impact as many people as possible. I wanted to start a chain, which I did, and use my voucher to move someone in dire need to the top of the list, which is happening this spring. Each donation is as unique as the individual giving the gift. My journey was not without roadblocks and setbacks but, in the end, the actual donation went about as smoothly as I could have hoped and, looking back, was much easier than I had imagined.

I was not an athlete growing up. I played the standard compulsory sports most American kids do: baseball, soccer, and football. Being on the lower end of the depth chart, by the time I was in Jr High school I was done. It was then that I found swimming. I had grown up around swimming pools and was always comfortable in the water. I swam my last years in high school, which was my introduction to endurance sports. Just as I was getting bored with swimming, I found the Triathlon. Three sports in one, exactly what someone easily distracted and with high energy needs.

I started training and by my mid-twenties, I was placing in my age group in most of the local races I entered. I continued to race on and off through my 30’s and 40’s, dabbling in other endurance sports along the way, always looking for that next exciting thing that pushed me physically and mentally. Most recently I found CrossFit. I enjoyed it so much I became a coach, which I do to this day. The constant mix of disciplines, no two workouts the same, appeals to my ADHD personality. By the time I turned 50, I had competed in Ironmans, sprint triathlons, marathons, 100-mile bike races, open water distance swimming, CrossFit Games, and obstacle course events. In the end, I consider myself a weekend warrior who loves fitness and anything involving endurance and the outdoors.

One of the key reasons I decided to donate was because of my health and fitness. I have been blessed with good genes and a healthy body. I have my parents, especially my mother, to thank for that. Being active and eating healthy was always a priority growing up. This mindset has served me well and is still a big part of who I am today. When I began the process of being approved for donation, I was told that only 15% of those who apply are selected. I told myself, “if I make that cut, then this is meant to be”.

Going into the donation I was working out 3 to 5 times a week. Activities would include CrossFit, cycling, swimming, and the occasional run – my knees are not what they used to be. I have experienced firsthand the benefit of going into surgery with a high level of fitness. I had my right shoulder rebuilt in 2017 – rotator cuff, labrum, and biceps tendon tears – and the recovery time was reduced significantly. The other reason for my hyper-focus on fitness prior to donation is I do not have the patience to deal with a prolonged recovery. I had made my mind up that I would be back to “somewhat normal” at 2 weeks, and back in the gym at 4 weeks. I even booked a business trip for 2 weeks post-surgery, which I took without issue. I totally understand and agree that everyone recovers at their own pace. I also do not expect anyone to set their recovery based on others. I am just wired to set goals and challenge myself with everything I do. I am a believer in the power of positive thinking. A positive attitude leads to positive actions. If there is one thing I can share, it would be the importance of both your mental and physical fitness.

I donated on Wednesday, September 30, 2020. I was walking the next morning, enjoying Chick-Fil-A that afternoon. I was a bit anxious going in, not knowing exactly what to expect. Would I have a prolonged recovery? How painful was this going to be? Would I get a hernia from pushing too hard too early? Turns out they are shared concerns based on the posts on the Kidney Donor Athlete page. In the end, my recovery was easy. I was discharged on Friday and was back at work on Monday. I walked every day for the first week, then transitioned to the stationary bike. On day ten I was coaching and at four weeks was doing light workouts. I was super concerned with getting a hernia, so I did go slow with anything ab focused and did not lift anything over 10 lb. for the first month – just like the doctor ordered! 

By week six I was fully back to normal, working out – at a reduced intensity – but able to work through most movements. I still recall the excitement of the first sit-up, pull-up, run, and mountain bike ride post-donation. All small accomplishments as life returned to normal. I was blessed not to have experienced any of the gas bloating and pain many talk about. My three incisions healed well and without issue. Looking back, I am amazed at how easy the whole process was. My recovery from shoulder surgery was significantly more painful. At the end of January, I celebrated my 4-month donation anniversary by competing in the CrossFit Living Donor Games. The workout consisted of 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats. I was able to finish in under 30 minutes, which considering the circumstances was a solid performance.

Everyone who donates a living organ has “their story” – the narrative of how they came to know this was their calling and the journey they experienced. If you come across these people, ask questions, as they want to share their story on how they joined the elite fraternity of those who believe that giving is more important than receiving. Some were called to save a family member or friend; others donate altruistic or non-directed because they feel it is the right thing to do. No two journeys are the same, but the result is the same.

Today, I ring this bell to honor the heroes before me

To encourage the heroes who will follow me

And to acknowledge the hero I am.” 

Day after day, ordinary people  

become heroes through  

extraordinary and selfless actions.” 

– Sylvia Mathews Burwell 

(The inscription written above is on this plaque and bell at the door of the Transplant floor, UC Health, Aurora, Colorado). 

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