The kidney donor part
A few years ago, I heard a story on NPR about kidney donation. It was the first time I heard about “the list”: The enormous list of people, tens of thousands, in desperate need of a kidney, the dozen or so people who die waiting every day, and the complicated rules governing who gets a kidney and who does not. It was the first time I had heard of kidney registries, in which matches are found, and the possibility of non-directed donation, in which a willing person can donate to someone they don’t know, but who needs a kidney.
I’m Jewish, and there is a Jewish obligation of Tikkun Olam, to heal the world. Different Jewish traditions, and different individual Jews, interpret the phrase and the obligation differently. For me, I believe that my obligation is to identify ways in which the world is broken and I might in some small way move it toward healing. Donating a kidney to an unknown stranger struck me as being in that spirit. Would it solve the problem represented by the need for kidneys? No. But it would help one person.
Once I heard the story and thought about donating, the universe seemed to send me signals that I should do it. Part of that is probably something called the “yellow car” phenomenon: Once a person starts thinking about buying a yellow car, they notice yellow cars all over the place. It’s not that there are more yellow cars, it’s just that they notice them. But still. . . I kept seeing newspaper articles and radio stories and Facebook postings and posters in store windows. The final straw came one day in the car when I was listening to Sam Sanders’ show “It’s been a minute.” At the close of each show, he plays recordings of voice mail messages that he solicits, asking people to tell him about the best thing that happened to them that week. As I listened, a man came on and said “I got my kidney this week.” The joy and relief in his voice was palpable. That’s when I knew I had to try.
I first went through the qualifying testing in December of 2019, just ahead of the pandemic. There is a lot of testing: Chest x-ray, abdominal ultrasound, EKG, four-hour kidney function test, twenty-four-hour blood pressure, psychological evaluation, surgical consult, assurances from employer and caregiver regarding recovery needs, and tubes of blood for blood tests. Dozens of tubes of blood for blood tests. My record for a single draw was eighteen tubes, nine from each arm. Did I mention that since I was a kid, I have been afraid of needles? The testing process helped me get over that; I kind of had to.
And then the pandemic hit. I had completed all of the testing but didn’t yet have a match. There was a lot that was not known about COVID in the spring of 2020. One of the things that was not known was whether a person who had just had abdominal surgery would be at greater risk of damage or death if they got COVID. I decided to put off donation until more was known. The transplant team was understanding and supportive of the decision.
In late fall, I reached out to the team to see if there was new data regarding the intersection of COVID and kidney donation surgery. There was: A study of about 800 donors found that they were no more likely to suffer severe COVID symptoms than the general public. I decided to move forward again. Unfortunately, some of the testing had to be re-done. More tubes of blood, of course.
The testing still came out positive, so the process moved forward. In early spring, the team found a matching recipient, and surgery was scheduled for May 5, 2021. I work as an academic dean at Oakland University near Detroit, and most of the year I’m scheduled to work on days that end in the letter y. But May is a month when the students have completed their studies for the year, and the fiscal year-end of June 30 is still somewhat comfortably in the future. Relatively speaking, it’s a less busy and stressful time of the year. The team I work with figured out how to do without me, potentially for five weeks. I was and am incredibly grateful to them.
At 5:30 on the morning of May 5, I reported to the surgical suite at the University of Michigan. Pandemic conditions being what they were, my wife Julie had to drop me off at pre-op, then leave. No visitors were allowed, so the next time I would see her was when she came to pick me up.
Pre-op took about two hours. I had my abdomen shaved, got an IV started, and had a visit from the surgeons. One gave me a pep talk, the other wrote her initials on the side from which the kidney would be removed. The anesthesiologist told me that she was putting something in the IV that would feel like a strong drink. That’s pretty much the last thing I remember before waking up in my hospital room.
Somebody told me that the day of surgery it feels as though you were hit by a bus; the next day, like you were hit by a car; the third day, like you were hit by a bicycle. That’s about how it was for me. I went home on the day after surgery and spent most of that day in a haze. Everyone recommends walking as much as you can after surgery; it helps to release the trapped gas up in your shoulders, which is the source of a lot of the pain in this kind of surgery. By day three, I was able to slowly walk the two-thirds of a mile “around the block” near my house. I was off work for about three and a half weeks of the five I could have taken.
As I write this, it has been about ten months since I donated. The three-inch main incision scar is barely noticeable. The two smaller incision scars and the very small marks on my hands from the IVs are nearly invisible. Physically, I feel exactly the same now as I did before donating.
The athlete part
I believe in wildly improbable goals (https://www.oprah.com/spirit/wildly-improbable-goals/all). Back in 2013, I set a goal for myself to complete an organized half marathon–13.1 miles–every month for 100 months. That’s eight years and four months, winter, spring, summer, and fall. My training philosophy was simple: Normalize a ten-mile run. Stay fit and healthy enough that on any given day, I could comfortably run ten miles. If I’m healthy enough to run ten miles any time I want, I should be able to run a half marathon per month with no ill effect. That was the plan, and it pretty much worked. There were a few bumps along the way. One early morning, I tripped and fell on a pre-dawn run, breaking a rib. Three weeks later, I walked a half marathon. That was somewhat painful. Winters in Michigan were a challenge. It’s not easy to find a half marathon in February in Michigan, and running when the temperature is near zero is no picnic.
I do my best to stay in shape, and for the most part, I’m doing well for a 59-year-old person. The furthest I have swum in a straight line is 4.3 miles, the furthest I’ve bicycled in a day is 125 miles, and the furthest I have run is a full marathon, which I have done eight times. But I’m not speedy, and there’s nothing much physically outstanding about me. I’m just tenacious. On May 1, four days before I donated a kidney, I ran a half marathon in two hours and ten minutes, about average for me. Seven weeks after donating, I walked my first post-donation half marathon. The organizers, after hearing why I wanted to, allowed me to start two hours before the rest of the field, which meant I finished about the same time as the back of the pack; two hours for them, four for me. Three weeks later, I walked the same course in about three hours and twenty minutes. I donated in May, and by August I was able to run most of a half marathon course, walking about the last three miles. September’s half marathon was done at a jog, and by November (six months post-donation) I was back to my usual pace. In December, I completed the 100-month streak by organizing a race honoring our late daughter Meagan. Our community came together and raised over $10,000 in her memory, all of which went to the high school she went to.
The bottom line part
Over the years, I have met a lot of people who have done unusual things. A friend from high school made his living as a professional show diver, climbing a sixty-foot ladder, lighting a kerosene-soaked cape, and diving into a small pool of water. Another was a member of the Olympic marathon team from Slovakia. A more recent friend toured with Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band. I know the first woman to swim the length of the Sea of Galilee. And I gave someone a kidney. Any of us would tell you that there is nothing special about us, except for two things: First, we were willing to do what it took to accomplish these goals. We saw what we wanted to do, evaluated the risks, created a plan, and set about accomplishing it. Second, all of us had a community that supported us. None of us did these things alone. We all had people who cared about us, loved us, and bought into the vision.
If you’re considering donating a kidney, know that you’re in good company; lots of relatively ordinary people have risen to the occasion and donated. While there are risks, there’s every possibility that you will be able to be just as active after donating as you are now. Donating a kidney is one of the best decisions I have ever made, and it might be the right path for you.