By Kim Constantinesco
In a year in which so much life was lost and freedom was stripped, I wanted to do something that would save a life and inject freedom. So, I donated my kidney to a stranger on December 16, 2020.
I thought it would be the “Hollywood ending” that I saw on kidney donor Facebook groups or on the news. The one in which 99% of the time, four days after transplant, the recipient’s shiny new kidney is producing urine. And, in turn, providing dialysis-free days and the prospect of a longer life.
Four days after this operation, however, was marked by my donated kidney clotting and dying. The heartbreaking outcome put my recipient, Jamal Shuriah, back on the transplant list.
Jamal is a Broadway performer who uses his body in extraordinary ways on stage and beyond.
Like an athlete, he puts in the early and consistent work—4:00am for dialysis treatments—to prep his body for auditions, rehearsals and performances.
As a lifelong athlete myself, from college basketball player to competitive big mountain snowboarder, my kidney, which performed on hardwood and snow-covered stages, seemed fitting for Jamal. We were compatible under the microscope of course, but our bodies and spirit—more “go” than “show”—seemed to match as well.
In the days and weeks after the attempted transplant, our story caught national attention. I agreed to interviews as I was healing and adapting to life with one less organ because I believed that sharing the story publicly would encourage others to see if they were a match for Jamal.
In one interview, I commented that even before surgery, I saw this whole donation experience as a race with a finish line to cross. Then I said, “I won’t cross the finish line until Jamal gets his kidney.”
As an avid runner, it made sense to me. I think it’s easy for athletes to lean on movement—and anything analogous to it—during dark times. If a rolling stone gathers no moss, an athlete on- the-move gathers a chance for redemption, or so I thought.
So, I kept moving. My surgeon told me I could do anything as my pain and energy levels allowed. Give me that kind of mile, and I’ll take it. Literally.
On day 21 post-op, I clocked a sub-9-minute mile, my first post-surgery run. Weeks later, I gathered some friends from my run club, and we dialed up a four-mile route in the shape of a “K” for kidney. My speed and endurance picked up even more from there.
Then, I caught wind of The Great New York 100, a 100-mile ultramarathon through NYC in June, which prompted me to email the race director. He said, “if you gave your kidney to a stranger, the least I can do is give you a spot in my race and waive your entry fee.”
That was it. Three months after donating, I hired a former professional triathlete to coach me and began training for my first ultramarathon, which would come six months after donating.
The National Kidney Foundation drafted a press release and made plans to amplify my quest. The hope was to encourage others to explore living kidney donation. It was going to be tangible proof that donors could recover remarkably quickly and raise their own bar even higher than when they had two kidneys.
A month into training, I took a long weekend and went to Boston, covering 65 miles on foot in four days. On paper and according to my coach, I was right on track. In my body, mind and spirit, there was a different story playing out.
Over the course of that month, the high-volume training brought on extreme fatigue (even on rest days), an onset of insomnia, elevated irritability, severe lack of focus and a drastically dipping mood.
Without a doubt, my body was saying, “Listen up. I’m in charge.” I needed to reevaluate, recalibrate, and offer myself the same compassion I would have to a friend.
I spoke with my therapist and realized that I was using this race to control what I could control in the aftermath of an unfortunate and unforeseen donation experience.
I was also using it to avoid sitting with uncomfortable feelings. I turned to running—a sport that has embraced me and generously propelled me through life—to run away from grief because that felt more comfortable.
Could it actually take more energy to move through grief than to run 100 miles in a single day? I would argue it could.
So, I withdrew my entry to The Great New York 100. It felt smart. It felt right. More than that, it felt good to go after something and then reel it back in. Much like the motion of the ocean, the ebbs and flows, the squeezing of your soul with iron fists is followed by its release. It’s the rhythm of life. It’s what makes a life, in my opinion.
And, usually, you find yourself back where you started, stronger and softer all at once ready to take on more smooth and sharp grounds.
As for that finish line I described? It doesn’t exist. For donors and recipients, kidney transplants—like life itself—are a constant unfolding no matter the outcome.
Jamal is still waiting for his next kidney. Maybe the purpose of mine was to put momentum in place so he receives the best possible kidney on this planet for him. If my donation kept that charge alive, I’d do it all over again. In a heartbeat.
And, with a bit of advice for myself: let the tears pour and pool more than the sweat.
If you’re interested in learning more about Jamal and sharing his story, visit www.findjamalakidney.com.
Kim, I so understand the sadness that comes from a failed transplant. Unlike you, I was donating to a coworker who desperately needed a kidney. Everything prior to the surgery was complete….. surgery on my side went so well. However, a surgical error done on the recipient by her team, left her hemorrhaging and coding later that night. My kidney was no longer viable. Thank God that she survived and waited 10 years on home dialysis before she received a successful transplant. People ask all the time about how I felt with my kidney “wasted” in that way. Once I made the decision to donate, I never considered it to be mine any longer. I prayed that it would help her. Sadly, that did not happen. We both grieved in our own ways. But I rejoiced when I watched her rise like a Phoenix, from the ashes of a disappointing event of our transplant, to flourish and continue libeling and amazing life. I hope you can also!
Thanks for sharing such a hopeful story, Lisa! So glad your recipient has a new kidney.
I’ve run a few 100 milers, and DNFed a few more. In fact I’m working on a blog post for my very recent DNF at Western States, and have waited to start looking at donation until that race was over. Thanks for your post. It helps put my DNF in perspective a bit.
Thank you for sharing this with us. It certainly helps me to process my outcome as well. It’s not always a made-for-tv movie, is it?
So brave; thank you for sharing.
I am an ultrarunner struggling to come back after donation. Your story moved me more than you know.