I donated my left kidney in January 2002 to a high school friend, Cheryl; I was 30 years old at the time.
Cheryl and I grew up in Massachusetts but had both found our way to central Iowa, where we reconnected and met one another’s spouses. When Cheryl got sick, donating was a relatively easy choice for me: I was a blood-type match and felt like if I were in her situation, I would want someone to step up for me in the same way. Also, my father had passed away the year before, so I was motivated by the thought that my actions could help a friend live a longer, happier, and fuller life.
I’ve always been athletic, playing baseball, basketball, and some tennis growing up but found my love of running in junior high. I was a decent but not outstanding high school runner, making the all-conference team in cross-country. I ran some D3 middle-distance indoor and outdoor track in college but decided that being on a team took too much time away from everything else I wanted to do during those four years and that I could always run on my own after college. I started training for my first marathon in the spring of my senior year of college and ran Twin Cities 1993 in 3:21 (still my PR by a lot!).
Throughout my 20s, I ran on and off. I did the post-liberal arts Odyssey for about six years, including grad school, Peace Corps, and teaching, all of which took a lot of time. I never was serious about it, but when I made time to run, I enjoyed it.
When I settled in small-town Iowa in 1999, I found a community of a couple of other runners, and we encouraged and held one another accountable.
That was the state of my athleticism when I donated: a decent if unserious runner who enjoyed running but never prioritized it.
Because it was 20+ years ago, I don’t have as clear of a memory of the surgery and recovery as I otherwise might. Overall, the donation went well for me; I was in the hospital for four days, off work for about two weeks, and started jogging about four weeks later. In many ways, the donation inspired me to see what I was capable of post-surgery, and I decided to train for and run a 20k race five months later; it was hot and I wasn’t quite in good enough shape for it, but I finished, along with Cheryl’s husband, Jon.
For most of the last 20 years, my training has been similar to what it was pre-donation: I enjoyed working out, but never took it very seriously. I started racing triathlons in my mid-30s to give my knees a break from the constant pounding of running and quickly discovered how much I loved that sport as well. I completed a 70.3 triathlon (half-Ironman distance) and my second marathon about 10 years after donating and continued to race shorter distances consistently. In 2014 I moved to Abu Dhabi, where I found perfect training conditions for six months of the year, and heat that only allows for indoor training for the other six months.
Two years ago, thanks to an empty nest and a global pandemic, I found myself with lots of extra time and decided to start training for an Ironman. Over my two years of training, I completed another five marathons, including two 50k ultramarathons (one as a part of a 150k duathlon, the other over sand dunes in the desert outside Dubai), and two more 70.3 triathlons. In June 2022 I finally became an Ironman, finishing the Des Moines race in 14:31. My next goals are not set in stone, but I am looking at marathons and more 70.3s for fall 2022 and spring 2023, and one of my daughters and I are climbing Kilimanjaro in December 2022 (I wish I could have joined the KDA team for this!). I’ll probably do more full-distance Ironman races in the future, but want a bit of a break from the training right now.
As you can tell, then, being a kidney donor has not slowed me down at all: in my 20 years since donation, I’ve completed seven marathons, including two ultras and an Ironman, three 70.3 races, and a slew of shorter triathlons and 10ks and half-marathons. Even training and racing in the heat of Abu Dhabi, I am fine: some of these efforts took place in very hot conditions, often in the mid-90s (35+C), and I was able to finish all of them.
Most days I don’t even think about the fact that I am a kidney donor; it does not impact my health or my decisions in the least. I think I do try to stay hydrated perhaps more than most people do; I take it really seriously, make sure that I carry fluids with me, and when I run over an hour, I choose routes that loop me back home to replenish my water supply. I have a great nephrologist, who has me do a full lab work-up every six months and then calls me to tell me I am fine.
I have a custom-printed tri suit that says KIDNEY DONOR on it and hope that seeing me out there might inspire someone else who has the possibility of donating to see that you can be a donor and still take on huge physical challenges.
There are also the mental health benefits of being a kidney donor. First, I have gotten to have Cheryl in my life for the last 20+ years and watched as her health was restored enough to compete in the US and World Transplant Games, medaling in cycling events at the global level (she even gave me one of her medals!). She and Jon were able to adopt their wonderful daughter Molly, which would not have been possible without the transplant. I’ve made terrific friends through the transplant community, first through the US Transplant Games’ Team Iowa and then through the global KDA group.
When I do think about being a donor it is, I will admit, with a sense of pride, and with the joy of having acted on my beliefs and values; it is an important part of my self-conception and identity. It remains, to this day, one of the best things I have ever done, and I would do it again without hesitation.
It’s Carla Halpern. I went to high school with you and Cheryl.
What a beautiful story! Congratulations on your many accomplishments!
Your story resonates with me. I am an ultrarunner who donated a kidney this past July (2022). I have no regrets, but I have been struggling and trying to find a way to come back safely. Donating a kidney at 53 is perhaps a bit different from donating a kidney at 30, but I would love to talk with you about your journey.
Wishing you all the best–