My name is Holly Armstrong, and this is my donation story for Kidney Donor Athletes. It’s funny because I wouldn’t have always considered myself an ‘athlete’. I was a chubby, sedentary middle schooler who occasionally played softball or street hockey with my older brother and his friends. But once my hands touched a volleyball in high school, everything changed. Something clicked inside of me, and I wanted to be the best athlete I could be. I trained hard and played well throughout high school and even played a little in college. After graduation and getting married, I continued to work out, whether swimming laps, popping in a workout video before work, or playing or coaching volleyball occasionally. Beginning in 2005, I had three kids in four years, and I maintained as much athleticism as I could squeeze in. But it wasn’t until I needed sanity breaks during the early years of homeschooling, that I began to RUN.
I have a shirt that says, “I run to burn off the crazy.” This is exactly what I discovered when my youngest was around 2. Having never run in any single race before, I realized I had a lot of ‘crazy’ to burn off; so, I trained for and ran in my very first race – the Thunder Road Marathon in Charlotte, NC. Yes, a full marathon was my very first race. I managed to pull off 26.2 miles WITH bronchitis. One thing about me is that I hate incomplete projects. I like to see things through to the end, and once I had trained for months for this race and I used that training as an opportunity to raise money for orphans in Kenya. There was NO way I was NOT going to run it. So, despite getting sick the week before the big day, I ran.
Something magnificent changes inside of a person once they have set out to complete a really large goal and then they achieve it. It is a sense of accomplishment that no one can ever take away, but for me, the whole experience was very spiritual. I KNEW that I could not have run that marathon without the help of my Lord and Savior. When I reached the end of my strength and energy, I relied on HIS. He carried me through.
This was a pivotal moment in my faith journey where I finally submitted everything to God, He proved to be faithful. When I would later doubt the ‘calling’ to homeschool my children, I looked back and remembered how God provided for me during my marathon, and I kept taking one step ahead towards that finish line. When I would later doubt the ‘calling’ to take my family on multiple mission trips to Guatemala, I could always look back at the past ways God had always provided, and never failed us.
The whole journey was like a staircase, and each step of trusting and obeying was leading me to the next step up. That first step was a massive 26.2-mile step, and the next ones would seem just as big – seven trips to a third-world country with my children in tow, all in the name of serving orphans whom I knew my God cared about. But at the top of my personal staircase, there was a step that read ‘donate your kidney to a stranger. And so by the time I reached that ‘calling’, I had so much confidence in my Lord who had helped me through all the prior steps, that it honestly didn’t seem that huge of a leap to step up.
In December of 2019, I saw a local news article about a little boy who had my rare blood type and was in need of a kidney. That planted a very important seed in my heart. I contacted the boy’s coordinator, but they had such an overwhelming response, that they didn’t need me to continue with any testing. But I just couldn’t shake the idea. Through much prayer, I realized this was my next ‘step’, my newest calling. So I contacted the National Kidney Registry and signed up in January of 2020 to be an altruistic donor. God spoke to my heart and reminded me that all people are His children. I felt that there was someone special He wanted to reach through my kidney, for it to be an instrument for them to truly feel the love of their Heavenly Father. I had no idea what 2020 was about to unleash, with COVID and quarantines, and it wasn’t easy jumping
through all of the testing and postponements of testing during quarantine, but God opened all of the necessary doors.
In October I was matched with a stranger whom I knew nothing about except that they were in Southern California. The closest NKR facility to me was Emory in Atlanta, which was still a four-hour drive from my SC home. But on 10/21/20, my left kidney was removed and flew first class to Los Angeles. There are so many God sightings in my story that I wish I had time to mention them all. But every single one made me realize that God never left my side and that I was perfectly in step with His will for me. My husband, Kevin, was so supportive and felt the same way. He KNEW this was our family’s mission for 2020. Thankfully, with homeschooling three teens/tweens and a husband who was working from home due to COVID, I had plenty of caregivers in my recovery. This would prove very useful over 2021.
Most donors bounce back quickly. I had a few complications that were a bit unusual though. One month after donating, I was in the ER with excruciating pain. The medical team couldn’t figure it out. But the following week, I was able to hear from my recipient for the first time, and that helped me mentally! (I will share more about her in just a moment.) My incision, which went from my belly button down a few inches, had the hardest time healing, so much so that I needed to travel back to Atlanta in February 2021, four months post-donation, to undergo general anesthesia again to have my incision surgically repaired.
I thought that would be the end of my recovery story. Unfortunately, it was not. During this time, I developed SIBO (SmallIntestinal Bacterial Overgrowth). Basically, the abdominal surgeries created digestive issues forme – think of a pond that turns all green from too much algae – this was essentially what had happened within my digestive tract. Almost everything I ate created painful bloating and discomfort. I could literally wake up with a flat stomach and go to bed feeling 4-5 months pregnant each night. This was most likely the cause of my incision issues – it’s not easy for skin to heal from surgery when it’s constantly being stretched and shrunk every 24 hours. This was also very disheartening, for I didn’t know what to eat and often felt fatigued from improper nutrient absorption. To top it off, I needed two hernias repaired. So almost one year after donation in October 2021, I was back on the operating table, having double hernia repair surgery. In just one year, I saw two functional doctors, my primary care doctor, the transplant team, a nephrologist, renal nutritionist, and general surgeon and spent more money than I had anticipated on the process, but the SIBO and hernias eventually all got better.
As I write this at the close of 2021, I am nothing but grateful. I healed from not one, but three surgeries and SIBO. I am back to working out on a regular basis, running, taking spin or weight training classes, playing racquetball with my boys, ice skating with my husband, or reffing volleyball with my daughter. Throughout the year of pain, I still managed to run in my first mud run and even ran a few virtual 5K and 10K’s, but most importantly I made almost every soccer, flag football, and lacrosse game for my boys and watched my daughter ride horses for hours on end. I feel healed from the inside out.
But what makes my heart the happiest is the fact that my recipient is doing phenomenal. Her name is Kelley, and we have developed such a beautiful friendship over the last year. Her new kidney is doing amazing. She is healthy, happy, and learning about the God who loved her enough to speak into my heart 3,000 miles away on her behalf. Her only child just got engaged, and Kelley is ecstatic to be healthy enough to be around for her daughter’s wedding – something she once feared she wouldn’t live long enough to see. God is so good, and He gets all of the glory for this incredible journey.
Just like running, choosing to donate is not always easy, but it IS worth it. The benefits always outweigh the costs. I have never once regretted my decision to trust and obey God’scalling for my life in donating my kidney. God has provided for every step. My husband, who normally could take 30-40 business trips a year, took ZERO during my recovery from three surgeries. Not until I was fully healed from my hernia surgery did his work travel begin again. We couldn’t have planned it that perfectly, but God did. God knew I would need extra help and support during this time. God provided funds in numerous ways to help with the unforeseen medical costs. God answered my deepest prayers for my recipient to not only be happy but to see Him for the first time ever. God even answered my most selfish of prayers to get to know my recipient. Despite living across the country, Kelley and I facetime, text, and talk all the time. She was so excited to call me when her daughter got engaged. God asked me to give up my kidney, but in return, He gave me a new friend, and He gave me such a strong faith that I am totally game for the next step He has for my family and me.