My Organ Donation Journey: Going the Distance

By Susan Dubuque
 
In November 2006, after I finished the 8k race, I dashed home so I could watch the Richmond Marathon. It was late in the race. The elite runners had long since crossed the finish line. But I was mesmerized by the individuals who were out there on the course.
 
They were not 24 years old, whip thin or 6’2” tall. In fact, they were older, shorter and heavier than I ever would have envisioned, and in a few cases, physically challenged.
 
It was surprised and delighted to realize that mortal humans — people just like me — could actually run a marathon. 
 
I made the decision, then and there, that in 2007 I would run the full marathon — all 26.2 miles of it. (I also decided my husband would run it with me, but that is another story for another day.) 
 
It didn’t matter that I had never run more than 10 miles. That I’m only 5’2”. or that I was 54-years-old at the time.  Somehow, I figured my determination would overcome my age, lack of experience and even my short legs.  And it did.  I completed 10 marathons in as many years.
 
My marathon experience is a perfect metaphor for my organ donation journey.
 
Last year, as part of my job, I had the pleasure of interviewing and writing stories about dozens of organ transplant recipients and donors at VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center. Through that process I discovered something very special.  Everyday people are doing amazing things. They are saving lives.

Once again, I felt inspired to act.

But how far was I willing to go to save a life?  What would it take? What would I have to give up?
 
I did my homework and here is what I learned. My hospital stay would be two days. I would plan on taking two weeks off work and perhaps work at home a little longer. I was told that I would have only one limitation — no running or heavy lifting for six weeks.
 
In February 2018, I decided to go for it.
 
The evaluation period was long. Over the next four months, I had every health screening imaginable.  But I chose to look at it as the world’s best physical examination.  Now I know I am good to go for another 10,000 miles.  In June, I was approved as a kidney donor and scheduled for surgery.

On July 10, I had a surgery to donate my kidney.

Here is a snapshot of what happened:
 
  • For me, the surgery was a piece of cake.  Operation on Tuesday. Home on Thursday. Off pain meds by Friday. And by Saturday I was walking all over the neighborhood.
  • Of course there had to be one little hiccup.  My digestive system didn’t get the memo that it was time to wake up after anesthesia, and I landed back in the hospital for one day.  My problem was quickly resolved and I was back on the road to recovery in a few days.
  • Exactly two weeks and two days following surgery, my doctor told me I was healing nicely and he cleared me to start running again —with the caveat that I take it slowly.  Since slow is the ONLY way I can run, I was more than happy to comply.
  • Less than three weeks from my surgery date, I rejoined my training team.  Since I missed a few weeks of training, I made the decision to do a half marathon in the fall rather than the full.  It seemed like a very small concession to make in order to save a life.
 
On November 10, 2018, I completed the Markel Richmond Half Marathon. The day was perfect — cool and crisp with the leaves at their height of color. Just four months following my surgery, I set a new PR (personal record), knocking 10 minutes off my time.

The best part of my journey happened before the race.

The week before the race, I had the joy of meeting my kidney recipient, Julie Graham. As a “non-directed” donor, I gave my kidney to a total stranger, basically whoever needed it the most. As it turned out, my spare kidney must feel right at home. Julie loves to run, too!
 
I know my kidney donation had a profound impact on Julie’s life. She is now off dialysis and looking forward to going back to work. But I genuinely believe the act of donating was equally life changing for me.
 
I know being an organ donor is not for everyone. I also know from interviewing both donors and recipients, that everyone’s journey with organ donation is different. Thanks for letting me share mine. If you are fortunate enough to be in good health and you’re willing to go the distance to save a life, please consider being a living donor. To learn more about living donation, visit www.kidney.org/livingdonation. If you have further questions, call NKF Cares toll-free at 1-855-653-2273.  You can also connect with other donors through NKF’s Peer Mentoring Program or Online Living Donation Community.