My name is Zachary Sutton, and I am a living kidney donor, transplant nephrology physician assistant, transplant advocate, husband, Dad, and athlete. I donated a kidney as a physician assistant student to the transplant list in 2008, making me the first altruistic donor in South Carolina. I had previously had a grandmother who passed from renal failure, and Donate Life sponsored our triathlons in South Carolina, so I knew of the need for kidney donation. As a student at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), I shadowed a transplant surgery and decided that day to donate. I signed up as an altruistic donor and donated after my exams in December 2008. After graduation from physician assistant school, I returned to upstate South Carolina to work in orthopedics. I had the opportunity to work in general nephrology for a few years, where I saw firsthand again the burden of kidney disease. However, I could return to orthopedics and care for my high school and college sports teams. It was not until 2018 that I was approached to work in transplant outreach, helping pre -and post-transplant patients in South Carolina.
I had always been a mountain biker, weightlifter, and avid runner. Still, as I aged, I focused more on cardiovascular activities. Naturally, triathlons were a good fit. I finished in the top 3 of my age group in South Carolina for two years, attending the USAT collegiate championships and Half Ironman Southeast regional competition (I finished 46th in my age group out of 170). After the transplant in 2008, I focused less on racing and more on training and getting outdoors. Trail running, mountain biking, and functional workouts become my mainstay.
Donating a kidney changed how I think about my health in 2008. I immediately focused more on my diet, changed my exercise habits to prevent injury, and started getting regular health checkups, including following a nephrologist. Over the years, I have adopted and adapted many lifestyle changes, including functional workouts, heart rate training, a low carbohydrate diet, intermittent fasting, and a vegan lifestyle for the last three years. Everything performance-wise improved from running, biking, and workout times. The improvements and confidence that I experienced helped to make me decide to complete a long bike trip.
I had the opportunity through my employer to be involved with a 650-mile bike ride across South Carolina in October 2021 that I completed while also providing medical support. The ride helped get me back to biking 150+ miles a week, reconnecting with local group rides, and even picking up a whole new group of cycling friends spread across South Carolina. This past year, I have started doing gravel races that vary in distance from 30-100 miles. In 2022, I completed two 100-mile gravel races, including Garmin Unbound (the largest gravel race in the world). This year my goal is the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race which I am riding while supporting the Chris Klug Foundation https://www.chrisklugfoundation.org/leadville-100/ to promote organ donation.
As far as advice to potential donors, I would tell them to trust in the process of living donation. We (transplant centers) do a thorough workup for living donors so that they and their recipients have the peace of mind that they are safe to donate. This also finds things like losing some weight, eating a healthier diet, being more active, eating protein (less or more), drinking more water, etc. Many of us gravitate towards activity (exercise, sports, things we have done our whole life, or new hobbies) and diet (low carb, fasting, vegan, vegetarian, etc.) because we seek to participate in our health actively, this drive is usually what caused us to be a living donor in the first place. Embrace what you know (previous healthy lifestyle or activities), seek out new information (diet, healthy lifestyle changes, new activities), and know that your health is as essential as your recipient’s health. Living donors are so important to the transplant community because of what they did through their selfless donation but also through their example to others that will follow them in the future!
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