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Amputee Gives Life Through Anonymous Kidney Donation

We were recently introduced to 33-year-old Tyler Coleman, a living kidney donor and below-knee amputee who anonymously donated one of his kidneys earlier this year. Our Program Manager, CC Cunningham, had the pleasure of chatting with Tyler about his altruistic kidney donation after they both ran in Donor Alliance’s Donor Dash back in July.

Tyler Coleman: I’m originally from Nebraska, but I’ve lived in Denver, Colorado for about nine years now. I was still living in Nebraska in 2009 when I was involved in a work accident that caused me to lose the lower part of my left leg, just 11 days after my 23rd birthday.

I was building roof trusses for prefabricated homes as part of my job. The machine that we use—basically an eight-ton rolling pin—ran over my foot and had to be rolled back over my foot a second time so I could free myself. I initially thought I had just broken my ankle—I wasn’t wrong, but it turned out to be a bit more serious than that: it basically crushed every bone in my ankle and foot and I had to have my left leg amputated below the knee.

After the incident, it became difficult to find work in my Nebraskan hometown and I ended up moving to Denver about a year later. I have a professional background in carpentry and electrical, I worked as an electrician in Denver for five years. I work in orthotics and prosthetics as a clinical assistant now. I’ve been doing that for four and a half years.

CC Cunningham: How did you first learn about living organ donation?

Tyler: About eight years ago, I overheard some people talking about living kidney donation and it immediately piqued my interest. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the proper way of going through with the living donation process at the time, so I didn’t act on it and just kept it on the backburner. That all changed in 2013 when I met my wife, Jess, who happens to be a transplant coordinator. I learned so much more about living kidney donation—and the National Kidney Registry (NKR), in particular—through her. After years of attending NKR events with Jess, I would always hear stories of altruistic kidney donors and people whose lives were saved by living donation. That’s what led me to start considering anonymous donation since I didn’t know anyone who needed a kidney transplant at the time. I went through the NKR to initiate the nondirected donor chain that I eventually was involved in and became part of their family voucher program.

Just to break down this donor chain system briefly: a nondirected donor chain is basically a “cluster” of kidney transplants that use living donor-recipient pairs who are incompatible as an advantage. Within this cluster, a nondirected donor (me) donates a kidney without an intended recipient, which initiates a chain of kidney donations between the donors and recipients that make up these incompatible pairs. A donor from one of these pairs, called a “bridge donor,” had a recipient in their pair who received a kidney from a compatible donor within their cluster. The bridge donor can then “bridge” two clusters by donating a kidney to a recipient from another cluster who they are compatible with. Two people received kidney transplants through the chain I was a part of, so mine wasn’t a large chain, but that’s the process I went through to donate my kidney to a complete stranger.

The NKR has this fantastic family voucher program for living donors as well. As a living kidney donor, I can name up to five family members who each receive a voucher that provides prioritization for a potential kidney transplant in the future if ever needed. However, if one of these family members uses their voucher, that’s the only kidney transplant any of my family members would be given priority for. As a nondirected donor, I also have a separate voucher to use. When Jess and I adopted our son as a newborn in March of 2018, I made sure he was signed up for the voucher program. He doesn’t have a medical history of any kidney problems or any predispositions that could cause him to need a kidney transplant later in life, but it’s nice to have that peace of mind just in case.

CC: How did your wife react when you decided to donate your kidney altruistically?

Tyler: Jess and I had talked about it for a few years, but we both knew the timing wasn’t right. Last year, though, I finally said to her, “Look, I just want to do this. If I’m actually going to do it, I can’t wait around any longer.” We began seriously looking into it last fall and I received the necessary testing and bloodwork. I just wanted to get all that stuff done and out of the way so we could determine the best time to have the procedure.

I did not realize how much blood they actually had to take as part of the tests and I had to do the urine screening a few times, so that wasn’t enjoyable, but it was fairly simple for the most part. I only had to take one full day of work off over the course of the entire testing process.

CC: How did the surgery go?

Tyler: My surgery was scheduled for 7:30 AM on April 9th, 2019. The procedure took about three hours in total. Through Jess, I’d known my surgeon almost as long as I’d known her! I also knew the guy from Donor Alliance who came to pick up my kidney post-donation—I knew just about my entire transplant team thanks to Jess!

While I was in surgery, I had Jess carry my prosthetic leg around all morning (I didn’t want it to get lost!). When I woke up about four hours after the operation, I was able to walk around the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) and was discharged from the hospital by noon the next day.

CC: How was the recovery?

Tyler: My employer, Creative Technology Orthotic & Prosthetic Solutions, was great with everything and worked really well with me: they gave me four weeks of time off to recover. I probably could’ve gone back to work after two weeks, but I didn’t want to push myself. Jess took care of me for the initial part of my recovery (granted, having a nurse and transplant professional at home for the recovery sounds great, but she also knows everything you can and can’t do!). While I was still in the hospital, my older brother from Kansas City, Missouri also came and stayed with us for a week to help with our son—he had just turned a year old. He brought him to and from daycare every day so that my wife could be with me at the hospital. To be honest, the hardest part of my recovery was not being able to pick up and hold my son.

I had the obvious abdominal pain that lasted for roughly two and a half weeks, although I could still feel some discomfort around five weeks when twisting in certain ways or tensing my abdominal muscles. I didn’t really know what to expect (the only other surgery I ever had before was the amputation), but thankfully, the recovery went really well.

CC: You also ran in the 2019 5K Donor Dash just three and a half months after donating!

Tyler: About a month and a half after surgery, I began running while pushing my son in a stroller. I had actually hurt my knee a few years prior, so I’d been gun-shy about getting back into it. However, after the donation, just being able to push him in the stroller and run with him right there with me definitely helped me get out of that funk. This was also the first year that I was actually able to run in the Donor Dash and it obviously meant a lot more to me this year than any other year I’ve been a part of it.

CC: Have you met the person who received your kidney?

Tyler: Yes! It was great, but it was kind of crazy how it all came together. My family and I are big Chicago Cubs baseball fans and we’d scheduled a trip to take my son to his first game at Wrigley Field. My brothers and their significant others were all coming along too. About a week and a half before the trip, my kidney recipient got ahold of me and told me that he lives in Chicago and that, if I ever come out to Chicago, he’d love to meet me. It was perfect timing: I told him about our upcoming trip and we planned on meeting for lunch while we were there, on July 14th.

It was incredible to meet him. He’s doing great! He’s 27 years old and was trying to become a police officer when he found out about his diagnosis. While he was going through some of the routine medical tests, the doctors discovered he needed a kidney transplant. He didn’t have any symptoms or a family history of kidney issues, so it was a big shock. After his first kidney transplant failed, he spent a year and a half on dialysis before receiving his second kidney—my kidney. He feels like he got his whole life back. My family met him and his whole family and we hung out for half a day before we had to get on a plane and fly back to Colorado.

CC: What made you want to start sharing your story?

Tyler: I want to use my story as a means of advocacy. It was hard at first because I wanted to get the word out, but I didn’t want it to seem like I was bragging about what I did. It took a little bit of getting used to, but I’ve definitely become more open to sharing my story these last few months. I may be missing some parts, but knowing I can help others with the parts I still have…that’s something really special.

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