If you are considering donating your kidney, I hope my story encourages you! Before I get into my experience as an athlete donating my kidney, I think it is important to share my “why.”
I donated my left kidney to a stranger when I was a 46-year-old married mom and lawyer. While nearly everyone was supportive of my decision, plenty of people wondered why I would do such a thing.
As a child I enjoyed being active; I loved to create obstacle courses for my sisters and me, and I liked to ride my bike after dinner. In high school, I played volleyball and softball and was captain of my school’s competitive cheerleading team. In college, I started running marathons and other races, and by the time I reached my forties I branched out into CrossFit. Most people who know me would say, “Alice really likes to work out.”
I’ve had some successes (competition cheerleading trophies, a 3:28 marathon, podium finishes in multiple CrossFit competitions) and wounds (two knee surgeries and too many foot and shin injuries to count) from my athletic endeavors over the years, but my favorite scars are those on my abdomen from donating my kidney.
There are risks with any surgery, especially a surgery *I* did not need, but my athletic background and general good health made me a near-perfect candidate to use my body to help other people. While I was terrified that my body would change forever, and it has, donating my kidney has been among the best experiences of my life.
Here’s how my kidney donation journey started…
In July 2019, my friend Angie posted on Facebook that she needed a kidney. She was casting a wide net for potential donors. I was in the midst of training for yet another CrossFit competition and I recall initially thinking, “I really hope someone steps up!”
But within a few hours after seeing Angie’s Facebook post I felt “called.” I don’t know any other way to describe it. Angie’s post mentioned that she needed a donor with type O blood, and since I had regularly donated blood for quite a while I knew I had O-negative blood. I was a universal donor, I was healthy, and I could – no I should – pay some kindness forward.
First, I’ll tell you a little about my friend Angie. Angie had her first kidney transplant about twenty-five years ago when her mom donated a kidney to her. That kidney worked very well for Angie for a very long time – and thank goodness for that! Angie and her husband Jeremy are fantastic people who have done so much to help their community over the years. They fostered dozens of children and eventually adopted seven children out of foster care. I have been privileged to know all of their kids, most from when they were babies. Those kids needed their mom, and their mom needed a kidney.
As I considered whether to volunteer to donate my kidney I realized that the main thing holding me back was the fear that my body would change and that I would not be able to do all of the things athletically that I had become accustomed to doing. I remember laughing at my initial selfishness, and then being one hundred percent confident that I could – no I should – volunteer to donate.
I think I felt so “called” because I have experienced significant tragedy in my life, including the death of my younger sister in 2006 and being widowed in 2011 when I was just 37. I have since remarried and am happy in my life with my husband and daughter, but living with grief is simply a part of me. I do not get through the hard times alone. Many, many people helped me over the years and for that, I am forever grateful. I try to seek out ways to pay forward the kindness shown to me, and when I learned that Angie needed a kidney it seemed like something I could – should – do.
In dealing with traumatic events – or even just everyday stress – being physically active helps me to work through my emotions. I was initially afraid that donating my kidney would take that away from me. Thankfully, resources like Kidney Donor Athlete introduced me to amazing people who had already donated an organ and were still doing the athletic things they love.
My decision was made. I was going to donate my kidney! I contacted Angie to let her know, and she and her family were so relieved. I wish I could say that the kidney donation process was seamless, but it most definitely was not.
Decades ago, the qualifications to be a donor were far less stringent. Now, the process is extremely complex because the doctors want to protect the long-term physical, emotional, mental, and financial health of the donor and recipient. This is obviously a good thing, but it can be super frustrating for people navigating the process.
Testing took months. The questions asked about my mental and emotional health were almost more invasive than the physical testing. At one point I was told that because I had “trauma markers” in my past because of my sister and husband’s death that I may be disqualified from being a donor. I was able to overcome that hurdle, but it was emotionally difficult to be told that I might not be able to help someone else because I had suffered tragedy myself.
In November 2019, almost six months since I saw Angie’s Facebook post, I was finally cleared to donate my kidney. But there was a catch. Angie’s prior kidney donation from her mom resulted in antibodies to my healthy kidney. This is common for people who have had more than one transplant but was devastating for us! That’s when we started working with the National Kidney Registry (NKR). NKR works to connect strangers with viable kidneys via paired donations, and sometimes via extended chains.
Because of the antibodies, I could not donate directly to Angie, but I could donate to a stranger and due to my donation, another stranger whose kidney is compatible with Angie could donate to her. NKR found a pairing within weeks. We were thrilled!
Surgeries for Angie, two strangers, and me were scheduled for February 4, 2020, at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. About a week before then I got a devastating call. The stranger who was to donate to Angie had backed out. Our paired donation would not happen.
I was given the option of donating anyway. I was assured that my donation would bump my friend Angie to the top of the National Kidney Registry for the very next viable kidney for her. I was all in. I donated my left kidney to a wonderful person I later learned to be Diana on February 4, 2020.
That date is important. Remember what happened to the world in 2020 (specifically early March 2020)? A GLOBAL PANDEMIC!!!! That meant that everyone was in a state of panic, and as a result, all non-essential surgeries were postponed. I had donated my kidney to Diana, but Angie was still waiting for HER kidney. It was unclear when the pairing process would start again and when Angie would get her kidney.
After several months of stress, Angie learned that organ transplant surgeries were happening again. Angie received her healthy kidney on June 2, 2020, and has been doing great ever since.
The donation chain that Angie, Diana and I were a part of continued. I am not certain how many people were involved, but through social media I have “met” several of the people whose lives were changed. One cool thing is that Diana (the woman who has my left kidney) has actually met Angie (the woman for whom I donated) and they are now friends in real life!
Despite the challenges of COVID, my recovery went pretty well. It was creepy to feel my organs shifting within my abdomen, but eventually, they settled where they were supposed to. I started walking immediately after my surgery, just up and down the hospital corridors. My surgery was on a Tuesday, I was discharged on a Thursday, and Friday night I went to the mall to walk with my daughter, who was eleven years old at the time. She had to carry my purse and we moved at a glacial speed, but I was determined to do what I could. I was told I shouldn’t lift more than ten pounds for six weeks and sort of assumed that would not apply to me. I was wrong! It wasn’t so much that I shouldn’t lift more than ten pounds but more that I couldn’t.
I started going to a local mall early in the morning to walk. Lots of people do that where I live, generally the “Silver Sneakers” crew. After years of intense workouts involving heavy barbells and movements like handstand pushups or chest-to-bar pullups, I was humbled by how my body was struggling just to walk. At one point I was passed by a white-haired man in jeans and New Balance with a neck brace! But soon I was walking eight to ten miles per day – four or five miles in the morning at the mall, and four or five miles in the evening at the high school indoor track. I tried to do some pushups and pullups, but my abdomen made me very aware that my body was not ready. I am very happy that I listened.
Just when I was cleared to lift more than ten pounds again, everything shut down for COVID (including the malls and track). Eventually, Spring turned into Summer and I was able to walk outside and run again. I purchased an elliptical machine and started using my barbell, weights, kettlebell, and plyo box at home to rebuild my strength, endurance and intensity. It was very obvious to me when I was pushing my body too hard. While it was a struggle at first, eventually I realized that I had to be kind to myself, too, and recognize that my body had been through something intense and disruptive. My body and mind needed time and space to heal and become strong again without being upset that (in my view, at least) I had lost some ground.
By September 1, 2020, about seven months post-surgery, I was back at my CrossFit gym. It felt so good to be able to work out among friends, even though things were different due to the COVID regulations that were then in effect. My gym had an in-house throwdown on September 19, 2020. I competed with a friend in the RX Team division and team “Three Kidneys” took third place! I was nowhere near the athletic shape I had been pre-donation, but I was happy to be able to move and compete again.
It’s now been more than a year post-donation and I would say I am fully recovered physically. I need to be very cognizant of drinking enough water and I don’t have the endurance I once did but aside from that, I don’t feel much different than I did pre-donation. I am slowly achieving post-donation personal records. The “PR” I am most proud of is showing myself and my body more grace than I used to and listening when I need to rest or simply not go quite as hard. My kidney donation scars have mostly faded, but the experience of donating my kidney is helping me to continue to develop into the best possible version of myself while helping other people along the way.
I was never going to cross the finish line of a marathon first (of my age group or otherwise); I was never going to compete at the CrossFit Games, and I was never going to change my life or anyone else’s by my athletic endeavors. But because I was healthy, and because I stepped up, I started a chain of health in complete strangers across the nation. This is the most awesome thing I could ever imagine. Consider doing the same.