Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Hayley!

My name is Hayley and I’m a 30-year-old from Wisconsin. I was a D1 swimmer at Nebraska where I held five school records for backstroke and freestyle events and relays. I graduated in 2013. Being tired of the sport I had done for the last 18 years, I opted to spend a few years bouncing around the globe as a marine mammal trainer. 

I lived in South Africa, Hawaii, Thailand, and California before settling in the Florida Keys where I attended The University of Florida to work on my graduate degree and as a SCUBA diving instructor. 

Me jumping for joy at Disney World four weeks post-op.

My story of kidney donation goes back to 2006 when I was 15 years-old and I went as my mom’s date to her college roommates daughter’s (Amy) wedding. We watched the processional where Amy was escorted down the aisle by a frail old woman. My mother leaned over and whispered “I don’t know who that is. I know everyone in their family!” When they reached the alter Amy explained that she wanted the woman that gave her the unrelated bone marrow transplant that saved her life from leukemia at 17 to walk her down the aisle… there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.  

The next morning we all went to brunch to hear the story of how Amy found this woman almost two decades later. Since it was brunch and everyone but me was of age, they all celebrated vigorously! At some point, someone asked Amy how she was doing and she admitted she had begun to fall victim to kidney failure due to radiation she received in her teens. Everyone at the table joked that they had potatoes instead of kidneys due to vodka consumption. Wanting to be a part of the conversation I said, “Well I can’t drink, you can have one of mine!” Everyone laughed and the conversation was forgotten until 2018 when Amy started to get really sick. The doctors told her it was time.

The group of people that sprang me from the hospital the day after the surgery.

It was late March and I was at work filling tanks with NITROX when my mom texted and said “What’s your blood type?” I told her, “I don’t know.” I instinctively knew and followed with, “Does Amy need it now?” It didn’t matter to me that I literally hadn’t seen this person in 12 years. I had told her she could have one and by George she was gonna take one! I left work and drove to Miami to donate blood so I could find out my blood type. It was the longest three days but I was a match. 

I contacted Amy’s doctor and started the process to donate. I had to stay at the clinic overnight in April and have many tests and interviews done. About two weeks later they called and said, “You’re about as perfect of a match as an unrelated person can be. Are you sure you want to do this?” I said, “Hell, yes!” 

Unfortunately, I was already committed to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro 15 weeks from that moment. It was early May at this point. They moved some things around got me in to have the surgery a little under 12 weeks before the climb. 

A selfie because some idiot gave me my phone when I was coming down off of the anesthesia. There were about 60 of these photos. Some I can’t tell if I’m asleep or not! I’ve had that giant moose since I was 8. 

The surgery took place on June 8th and due to weather, the hospital’s power went out and they had to go on generators which nearly killed our mothers who waited anxiously in the waiting room. Everything went swimmingly.

We both started our recovery but mine was very quick. It has to be. My doctor said the faster I got walking the faster I would recover for the hike. Within a few hours of waking up I was already walking, slowly and painfully but I was walking! By the next day, I was almost completely upright and pulling pranks on all the nurses. Sleeping was very uncomfortable for the first few days. I usually slept in a chair until I finally farted out the massive air bubble trapped in my stomach. I still think that was the most amazing feeling I will ever feel. It was an epic fart. After that my stomach discomfort went down immediately.

Me with my distended belly before the massive fart that released the air! haha.

After about five days, I could lay down on my back comfortably. From there on out every day I felt better. Four weeks later, I rode rides at Disney World including Tower of Terror which was the one ride the doctors cautioned against but, you know, YOLO! It turned out fine and added to the terror!! At five weeks, I drove from Florida to Wisconsin as this trip to Africa was also a trip to Europe where I was moving. I spent weeks 6-9 resting and walking, walking, walking, and when the mood struck light jogging .

11 weeks and some change later, I was on top of Africa looking out at a flat expanse of clouds. It was worth the pain and effort. I didn’t train beyond light jogging and lots of walks but nothing at altitude. I do consider myself healthy enough to complete a marathon without training but this experience tested that theory. It was the most physically painful and difficult experience of my life. The surgery and lack of recovery time left my hip flexors weak and by day 6 of hiking every lift of the knee was torture. Our route had the highest success rates and took 8 days up and down. While I wouldn’t do it again I have to admit I wouldn’t change the experience for anything! I did it with my dad, brother, his girlfriend, and my friend… plus some random dude who ended up being a jerk.  

Me with my sign at the top of Kilimanjaro with the village it took to get me there! 

The Guinness Book of World Records said my feat was the first of it’s kind to try to climb it within 12 weeks of donating but they believed it was too dangerous to make it a record that would be encouraging people to break it! Haha.

Anyways, I returned to graduate school in Ireland and finally finished my Master’s of Science degree. Now nearly three years later, I work on Discovery Channel shows, mostly Shark Week and anything involving Forrest Galante. I also started training to compete at the Masters Rowing National Championships for the state of Texas. I row six days a week now. Having one kidney has never gotten in the way of anything I wanted to do. I’ve also had two friends that decided to donate too! 

I hope my silly story helps someone take this endeavor on with joy and silliness. We only get one life but you do get two kidneys… Guess you get to do what you please with both! 

I am honored to be apart of this community.

One thought on “Meet Kidney Donor Athlete, Hayley!

  1. Great story. Thanks for sharing Hayley. Is there a story about your recipient, Amy, finding her marrow donor to walk Amy down the aisle?

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