Hello from the Green Mountain State! My name is Fiona Connors. I am an athlete (hiker, gravel rider and yogi), a French teacher, a proud resident of Burlington, VT and as of July 26th 2022, a living kidney donor. At thirty years old, I donated my left kidney to my younger sister. I share my story to inspire others to consider donation and encourage the ripple effect that my story may have. I lost a kidney but have gained so much more– a deep appreciation for my body’s ability to heal, a new community of inspiring donor athletes and most importantly, the peace of mind that my sister has a future and can chase her wildest dreams.
My resilient and beautiful sister, Meera, has been battling with chronic kidney disease for over a decade. She is an athlete herself. She biked cross-country with kidney disease a few years ago. A few weeks before her transplant, she rode twenty miles with me on the Burlington bike path (see photo below).
Meera’s kidney function decreased rapidly in December 2021, and the search for a kidney donor began. We found out in late December that my mom was a great match. My mom was eager to donate her kidney. I am embarrassed and sad to say I was relieved that my mom would be the donor; that I didn’t have to go through the donation process.
On January 25th, 2022, I found out that I was a perfect match for my sister. After a quick Google search, I realized how rare it is to be a perfect match–it only happens to 25% of siblings. I discovered that my kidneys would have the highest chance of acceptance and potentially allow Meera to reduce, or potentially eliminate, the dosage of anti-rejection medications she would have to take, many which have many nasty side effects. I wish I could say that I immediately decided to be my sister’s donor. The truth is, I wanted to be her donor but I couldn’t commit to a “yes” right away. I was fearful that I wouldn’t be able to have the same quality of life post donation and was nervous about falling into a depression if I couldn’t do the activities that bring me joy. I did not know that donating would fill my soul with more happiness and peace than I had ever experienced.
The Ripple Effect
Call it what you will, serendipity or fate, but a few weeks after I found out I was a perfect match, I saw a newspaper advertisement for a 5k race in Burlington, VT, sponsored by a group called “Kidney Donor Athletes” at my local park. This race, organized by kidney donor athlete Rebekah Thomas, was a fundraiser for a Kilimanjaro climb to raise awareness for living donation. Rebekah’s race was my first encounter with the ripple effect. Rebekah’s 5k inspired me to join the KDA Facebook group and to fill out a KDA mentor request form.
Tracey Hulick, founder of KDA, promptly responded to my request and told me that she found a local Vermont KDA mentor for me, Ashlie Graham. A few weeks later, I met Ashlie; we went for a walk. Connecting with Ashlie was everything. Not only is Ashlie a kidney donor athlete (ultra runner, hiker, weight lifter and biker), she is a solid human being. Her optimism, drive (professionally and personally) and groundedness inspires me. Ashlie was my second encounter with the ripple effect. I feel lucky to call her a good friend now. She was key in helping me realize that my fears were, in fact, false evidence appearing real. Knowing that I could return to all of my activities post donation gave me a sense of peace. I decided to proceed with the donation process and thankfully passed all of the medical and psychological examinations. Thanks to KDA’s active facebook group, in May 2022 before I donated, I was able to join a Burlington city marathon relay team with KDA Nicolette Dailey and Ashlie Graham.
Tolerance program or traditional laparoscopic surgery?
After I decided to move forward as the donor, my family explored the best surgery options. We were so excited when we discovered “The Tolerance Program” at UCLA. This trial program was designed for perfectly matched siblings. Essentially, Meera would adopt my immune system through a bone marrow transplant so my kidney could thrive in her body without anti-rejection medications. Sadly, we were turned away from this program because Meera has ulcerative colitis and UCLA didn’t want the results of the trial to be affected by this autoimmune disease.
Fortunately, we were accepted by one of the best hospitals for laparoscopic surgery: New York Presbytarian Weill-Cornell. We decided to move forward with laparoscopic kidney surgery. In 2008, a new modification of laparoscopic donor nephrectomy was pioneered at Weill-Cornell by Dr. Del Pizzo. Instead of several incisions, I would have a single-entry port through my navel. This is a less invasive option for donors so I was stoked. I was also extremely fortunate to be matched with Dr. Del Pizzo as my surgeon.
Ambiguity with surgery date
Before I knew that Meera would need a kidney transplant in the very near future, I made plans to hike the Inca trail in Peru in July of 2022. Meera’s kidney function dramatically decreased in June and my transplant coordinator advised me that surgery would be scheduled in July. I was contemplating canceling my Peru trip but my transplant team assured me that I could donate when I returned to the States. So, I went to Peru!
The Inca trail was one of the best experiences of my life. I left Peru with a deep appreciation for Pachamama (“Mother Nature”), the family that I made on the trail and all of the individuals I met who made the adventure possible. I hoped one day, when I had recovered from surgery, I would be able to do a trek like this again.
Covid positive a week before transplant
Our surgery date was scheduled ten days after I returned from Peru, July 26, 2022, in order to allow time to quarantine if I contracted COVID abroad. Ironically, I did contract COVID. It hit me hard and I experienced many symptoms: fever, cough, sore throat and fatigue. The most challenging part of this predicament was isolating myself from my sister and my family before the surgery.
My third encounter with the ripple effect was during this isolation period when local Vermont KDA Maureen Murphy reached out to me via facebook messenger. Maureen sent me words of encouragement and wisdom when I was feeling alone and scared. Maureen had donated four months before me. She is a native Vermonter, software engineering manager, loving mother and grandmother, and an avid hiker. Having Ashlie and Maureen as role models and mentors through this process was so grounding.
Thanks to whatever higher power is out there, my symptoms subsided the day before surgery.
Immediately before surgery, I was able to have a minute with Meera. It was the most intense and profound moment of our lives thus far and my mom happened to capture it on her phone. In that fleeting moment, I remember telling myself “it’s all going to work out.”
Meera’s body accepted my kidney and words cannot express how amazing that felt (and still feels). Her journey to recovery was no cake-walk and there were setbacks. I am happy to report that three months post operation, all of her labs are normal! She is feeling energized and eager about her future plans. She and her amazing partner, Stephen, recently closed on a house in New York’s Hudson Valley. It is wonderful!
My journey to recovery
I was treated like royalty at Weill-Cornell, the nurses and staff members on my floor were so caring. I was annoyed I couldn’t take full advantage of the dining options because my GI system was completely out of whack.
Bobby McLaughlin, past president of KDA, sent me a kind message which helped motivate me to start walking as soon as possible. He wrote, “Good vibes for you as you recover; the first time [you walk] is the worst, the second time is better, the third time even better.” He was right. Some long hours after my surgery, I was barely able to walk ten feet. The second day, I walked a few laps around the hospital floor with the help of my incredible nurse, Serge. Serge has a great sense of humor and made me laugh, which arguably, was the most painful part of recovery! By day three, I was able to double my lap distance. While it took about twelve weeks for my abdominal swelling to go down, and for my energy levels to be restored, seeing progress and feeling stronger everyday was so rewarding. Also, leaning into resting and listening to my body was key in my healing. Four weeks post-op, I went on a short two mile hike up Mount Philo.
Around six weeks post-op, I met up with the KDA Maureen Murphy, for a moderate hike up Snake Mountain (first picture), and at seven weeks post-op, I hiked with mentor Ashlie Graham near Mount Abe (second picture).
By eight weeks, I was able to tackle more challenging hikes and was able to summit Camel’s Hump with some friends. Finally, by ten weeks, I was back on my bike!
Ripple effect comes full circle
When Bobby McLaughlin offered members of the kidney donor community the opportunity to raise awareness of live donation and summit Kilimanjaro in March of 2023, I couldn’t help but be interested. My story came full circle when Maureen and I met up with Rebekah to discuss her Kilimanjaro advocacy climb last year with KDA. Rebekah was a joy to meet; her positivity and joie de vivre shine bright. She answered all of our questions about Kili. Although I was unable to join the climb in March that was hosted by Living Donor Adventures, Maureen joined the group.
Maureen and the team of kidney donors and advocates summited Kilimanjaro on World Kidney Day (March 10, 2023)! I was sending them my positive vibes the whole trip!
This November, my father selflessly donated his kidney to a stranger at Weill-Cornell. Not only did he help this stranger but he secured a kidney voucher through the National Kidney Registry (NKR) for a family member, if they need another kidney transplant in the future. He is recovering well and back to his winter activities (ice fishing, shoveling snow and long dog walks). I couldn’t be more proud of him. The need for kidneys is so great; about 100,000 people in the United States are waiting for a kidney transplant and they usually have to wait several years. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to be a spokesperson for live donation and hope to be a mentor for other potential donors.