My name is Maggie and I am a 45-year-old wife, mother of two, instructor, runner, yogi, and a live organ donor.
I met my friend Phil in 1998, the summer before my senior year of college. At the time, I was his best friend’s annoying girlfriend. I kept them from playing board games and Dungeons and Dragons as much as they would have liked. Despite my dungeon blocking, Phil and I had a shared interest in music and books. We went out dancing or drinking with lots of friends. Phil was already an excellent and experimental cook. He always had snacks and sodas packed on road trips. He enjoyed sewing and made himself a very cool animal print vest that he wore out dancing on New Years’ Eve 1999. He proclaimed, “The purple sweet tarts taste like love.” We loved him dearly… And he was always kind to me, even though I kept his buddy from fighting monsters with dice.
Phil was diagnosed with diabetes before I got married. At the time it seemed weird, but Phil was young and healthy and I didn’t think much of it. Sadly, in the late 90s and early 2000s, like many twentysomethings, we all had lots of temporary and transient low-paying jobs that didn’t offer health insurance. His diabetes went largely untreated. Despite this, Phil was the best man at our wedding and is godfather to our second son. He has been there for me through motherhood, unemployment stretches, job woes, marriage issues, multiple moves, and the normal ups and downs of adult life. So a few years ago, when his wife told us he was going on dialysis and he needed a kidney transplant, I immediately thought this was something I wanted to check out.
Sadly, this coincided with a health issue with one of my sons, and then a global pandemic. As soon as everything calmed down, and clinics opened up again, I began making contacts to see about organ donation. I began the process with Phil’s transplant nurse in Pittsburgh. She was amazing and answered lots of questions, sent me a blood testing kit and a bunch of paperwork, and said she would be in touch. I grew up with a lot of really sick people in my life and was going through a fairly scary but seemingly benign health issue with my son. In all of these instances, there was really nothing I could do to help, other than send flowers, make food, go to appointments with various doctors, and be a supporter. The thing that appealed to me about live kidney donation was it gave me something I could do! I was nervous about the process, but I told myself if I was healthy and a good match, I would start the live donation process.
My only worry was my running. I am a very slow but enthusiastic runner. I try to get in a good run 5 days a week. Throughout the pandemic, running kept me healthy, both physically and mentally. I love running. I don’t consider myself an athlete, but I understand the medicine that is movement. Running has helped me sleep, helped with stress, and has been the best self-care. It is a mindfulness practice– letting go of my thinking self, letting my body work, and watching my thoughts as I go. After reading quite a few kidney narratives, I realized that my running might actually make me a better live donor and that most people got back to their own routines after a few months. I felt ready to move forward.
After initial blood work, it was clear I was not at all a good match for Phil. The transplant nurse in Pittsburgh told me I could donate in honor of Phil to someone else, and then he would get a matching kidney. This sounded weird to me, but also good. I liked the idea of being able to help multiple people. She looked into transplant programs near me and connected me with the University of Kentucky Transplant Center in Lexington. I started the process with a bunch of medical tests and was informed by Todd Maynard, the living donor coordinator at UK, that I had “superstar” kidneys. I was grateful for my overall health, and despite feeling a bit scared about giving up an organ, I felt ready to go forward. The staff at UK took more blood, did more tests, set up the donation voucher, and sent me home to wait for a match.
It took two weeks to find a match for my kidney. It was a little exciting and a little unnerving, but I felt ready to say goodbye to Little Lefty. All I knew about the recipient was that they were having their transplant surgery in Florida. My kidney would get on a plane and spend the rest of her days on the beach! Surgery was scheduled for the end of May. I got all of my pre-operative testing done and was five miles into my last run on the day before my scheduled surgery when I got a call from Todd Maynard. I would not be able to have surgery, my COVID test was positive, and the NKR would not go forward with the transplant. This was extremely weird news. I had prepared mentally and physically for surgery and was now seemingly infected and everything changed. I would have to isolate for 10 days, even though I felt fine. I was completely vaccinated and had no symptoms. I never left my house without a mask and hand sanitizer. My goddess mamma and super Auntie Amy had planned to come down and be communications manager at the hospital. I had to call everyone and tell them the weird news. I spent 10 days in my upstairs den, spraying everything I touched with Lysol and having all of my meals left at the top of the stairs. I couldn’t go for walks or runs, so I did lots of yoga. I did Duo dinners with my family. We watched an episode of Svengoolie over Zoom. It was very strange and very lonely.
After testing negative 3 times, I went back to UK to get more blood work done. I was super grateful that testing positive didn’t prevent me from donating all together. After a negative PCR text, we started the live donation ball rolling again. It happened that my same recipient was still happy to accept my post-COVID kidney. We rescheduled surgery for the end of June. I went back to running and doing my chores and hanging out with my kids and doing work projects.
About two weeks before surgery, I got another call from Todd– this time, my recipient had an issue and we would have to delay surgery again. This was a little frustrating, but I figured whoever they were, they got me back! 🙂 We rescheduled surgery for July 19th.
I was really nervous at the lead up for surgery, not for the procedure itself, but that I would test positive or something weird would prevent surgery from happening again. I was really careful leading up to my preoperative testing, always wearing a mask and washing my hands, and trying to limit my time around other people. I went to the clinic to get my COVID test and Shannon, my favorite vampire in the lab, was playing The Weather Girls and promised me the test would be negative. I went over the procedure and plan for surgery with Dr. Meera Gupta and signed a bunch of paperwork. It was a Friday, and I was going to donate on Monday if everything went well.
I obsessively checked my test results online until I saw a negative result! This was excellent news! Goddess Mamma Amy was back on the plan to head to Lexington to manage me and communications at the hospital. I asked my kids to go with me to the zoo on Saturday. On Sunday, we snuggled up and made preparations for my hospital stay. I packed my bag and tried to wrap my mind around what I was heading into. I went on my last run again, running over nine miles on lots of adrenaline. It felt amazing. I said goodbye to Little Lefty and wished her good luck in her new person. I told her to enjoy her break on the plane, without my worrying brain or any work to distract her, and to snap back to work as soon as she was hooked up.
My husband dropped me off at the hospital early in the morning of the 19th. I met Goddess Momma Amy and we got registered and set up in the preoperative suite. There were lots of people asking me questions, I saw Todd and Dr. Gupta, peed in my millionth cup, and had more blood drawn. I met the anesthesiologist, a very cool doctor with amazing eyeliner, and a whole bunch of residents and nurses. When it was time to wheel me back into surgery, I started getting a little scared. The surgical nurse was so sweet to me, we talked about White Christmas because I called my surgery hat a snood. I got on the operating table and saw all of the padding and instruments and felt really nervous. An anesthesiologist put a mask over my face and they let me know I would be getting the sleepy injection soon. I grabbed the funny surgical nurse’s hand for reassurance, and that is the last thing I remember.
I was waking up as I was wheeled into post-op. I was so confused, it felt like I was waking up at home and it took me a minute to remember that I was coming out of surgery and was finally minus a kidney! My tummy hurt, but not too bad. My throat was scratchy and I was shivering. The post-operative nurse gave me warm and snuggly blankets and asked about my pain. I remember the radiologist coming by to take an x-ray– and that required me to lean forward.
That’s when I realized I was hurting! After the x-ray, I worked on breathing around my pain. The nurse gave me some pain relief and I was in and out of sleep until they brought Goddess Momma Amy in to see me. We chatted a little, she gave me my glasses, and the nurses got ready to move me to the medical floor. At this point, my pain was pretty manageable again. It hurt, but not too much. I was smiling and chatty when Dr. Gupta came in to see me. Everyone advised me not to turn down pain medicine and to stay on top of my pain relief.
The nurses and nurses assistants on the medical floor were the best people in the world. They brought me water and checked my pain level and helped me get comfortable. I had amazing care at the University of Kentucky. My recovery was pretty quick, I was up and walking loops around the medical floor on the day after surgery. The only little snag was my completely uncooperative bladder. After my catheter was removed, my bladder refused to empty. I developed an unhealthy relationship with the bladder ultrasound machine. I spent a lot of time watching Golden Girls reruns and trying to have a huge pee and hoping I would get to go home soon.
Dr. Gupta advocated that I should be sent home, to allow my shy and confused bladder the opportunity to wake up and feel better in its own regular bathroom. I was elated. Heading home felt weird and I was so happy to be around my family and my kitties again. I went for a short walk outside when I got home, it felt good to smell the air and feel the sun. I woke up the next morning in my own bed with two kitties snuggled up to me instead of in a hospital bed for my morning vitals and labs.
My days after surgery were pleasant. I napped, walked, and watched melodramatic anime and bad Christmas movies. I was super happy to wear regular shorts and not pajamas. I was itching to run again- but I contented myself with a morning and an afternoon kidney walk. I had very little pain and was ready to start back at work full-time quickly. I kept walking and added gentle yoga when I felt ready for it.
I started running again in September. On my first day back, I thought I would go for 3 miles. I barely made it to 2. But it felt so good to be back in my sneakers and listening to my music and watching the birds and the sky. I paired slowly upping my mileage with daily yoga practice to help my body adjust to my missing kidney. I got back into my regular 5-mile run 5 days a week pattern in October, and even added in a weekly 10K. Running always feels great, and my only worry about being minus a kidney was that it would affect my running. And it didn’t at all. I try to keep hydrated, but aside from staying on top of my water intake, I usually don’t even think about my kidney being gone and working hard in someone else.
Phil got his donor kidney in April 2022. He called to let me know in the middle of my class, and I answered the phone (which I never do during class) and then told my students, “MY FRIEND PHIL IS GETTING A NEW KIDNEY TOMORROW!” They all laughed and applauded for him!
His surgery went well for the most part. It was wonderful to hear how he was doing and to have someone to compare incisions and pain levels with. I am glad he is doing better, no more dialysis! He goes on short walks with his wife and his doggies, he is back to cooking, and he continues to read and write faithfully. He and my husband have a weekly online D&D campaign, where they can connect with friends and roll their dice virtually.
I have to say- being a live kidney donor was the weirdest thing I have ever done. It is really strange to be like– here, have this part of me. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. I wish I had more kidneys to donate. I hope Little Lefty is behaving in her Florida body. I hope my Florida friend is doing well and feeling good. I am beyond happy that I could do something to help my friend feel better. Having a lot of sick people in your life can make you feel helpless. I am super grateful to the staff at the University of Kentucky transplant center for helping me to be able to do something, to take action, and make someone else feel better. I would encourage anyone who is thinking about live donation to ask lots of questions and to acknowledge the fact that organ donation is scary and strange, but it is an absolute gift to know that you helped someone live a better life.