While a freshman in high school I was diagnosed with Polycystic kidney Disease. By my early 30s each kidney had grown to the size of footballs creating a distended abdomen. With all my internal organs pushed and squeezed I began to get sicker feeling like morning sickness. I was vomiting and dry heaving on and off for about 5 years. At 37 in 2002, I had a transplant and both kidneys were removed. My incision went from my sternum to below my belt line. My sister was my donor while my brother was also a match.
Post surgery it was determined that there was a kink in the ureter from the kidney to the bladder. A tube was inserted from my side through the kidney down the ureter and into the bladder. This was connected to a urine bag out my left side. I would go to the hospital weekly to have a wider tube put in to try to relieve the kink. After 4 months all attempts were unsuccessful. I had the ureter surgically repaired again going in from sternum to stem. Finally, 6 months from my Transplant and 7 admissions in the hospital, everything was fine. My only child was born less than a year later.
After 12 years my transplanted kidney failed. A surgeon was going to insert a tube in my peritoneal cavity so I could start dialysis. He was also going to repair an obvious hernia where my original incisions were. The incision was once again down my entire abdomen. When I awoke from surgery, my surgeon told me I had more than the one incisional hernia; he stopped counting at 14! With all the scar tissue in my abdomen the placement of the peritoneal tube had to be repositioned, but with a less invasive surgery. I finally began peritoneal dialysis. My treatments lasted 11 hours each night and were very uncomfortable because of all the scar tissue. This was only temporary until my brother was retested.
Several months later, it was determined that since I had carried someone else’s kidney, my body makeup had changed. The markers that were once a match were no longer. The horrible experiences I had with peritoneal dialysis that were once temporary now became permanent. I had only a five percent chance of getting a kidney. My brother even enrolled in the paired exchange program.
I had 2 surgeries to create a fistula in my left arm and in December 2015 I was moving to hemodialysis. My first day of hemo I walked into the unit with my phone earbuds and a blanket. I was determined to do my time 4 hours a day, 3 days a week forever. When I walked in the room I saw 12 dialysis chairs and 11 people there with their heads down. I thought to my self “I’m gonna die here, or I’m gonna take it over and make it bearable for everyone here”. Music has always played a big part in my life. I apply lyrics to my life to help me move forward. The day I walked into dialysis, I lost my job, I was sick, my marriage was ending. I was alone on an island. I thought of a Bob Seger lyric:
“I stood alone on a mountaintop
Starring out at the great divide
I can go east, I can go west
It was all up to me to decide
Just then I saw a young hawk soaring and my soul began to rise”
That was the defining moment of my life. I decided to take over that unit and make it bearable, or as bearable as I could for everyone there. Two months later I started to thrive! I needed to do something epic. Something to show myself and the others that this dialysis chair would not define us, we should live our lives regardless. So while in the chair I planned a trip. On a Wednesday morning in March I dropped my daughter off at school and drove to Canton, OH to the pro football Hall of Fame. I bopped around footballs elite for a while then drove to Akron for a dialysis treatment. I spent the night there and drove to Detroit to see Bob Seger close out his tour in his hometown. It was the greatest concert I’ve ever seen. The next day I was off to Cleveland to the Rock & Roll HOF, and then to watch A Christmas Story. That evening I drove to Pittsburgh to see the house my dad grew up in. I spent the night in Pittsburgh, had a dialysis session at 6am, went to a Penguins game and drove home, all because I could! When I returned to my dialysis unit I was greeted with applause. I told them I just wrote the book, Go Live Your Lives!
A few months later I got a call; they said, “Mr Harding this is Geisinger transplant, you were number 7 on this list, now you’re number 5. Pack a bag and get ready”. I made it to number 4 but that was it. I few weeks later I went from 4 to being in line for the 2nd kidney, but the kidney was bad. On 7/1/15 at 2:08 am I got the call. I was getting a transplant. Within 24 hours of receiving that call I was in recovery.
I battled with this kidney. It rejected 3 different times but we fought it off and it was saved. The kidney came with a virus. The virus from the unknown 32 year old hero was suppressed by his immune system. Since mine was compromised it came to light. We had a difficult balancing act between my immunosuppressants and the medication to kill the virus. We beat that too. By October I became severely anemic and we couldn’t figure out why. Finally, my brilliant team at Geisinger found a second virus. They mapped out a course and we beat that too. 2016 was going to be my year!
Im June I had my first public speaking opportunity at the Geisinger transplant picnic at Knoebels Amusement park. I told my story and began tearing up. I knew I was very lucky to be healthy and I had to do something. I bought a 4’x4′ Donate Life sign for my little league fence. After the season ended, I took it with me. I took it to Big Dog Daddy Fest and had professional wrestlers sign it. I took it to rock concerts and put in on display. I brought green wristbands and organ donation literature and talked to people about Donation. I registered people using my smart phone. I had a knack of winning concert tickets from a local radio station.
I went to 11 concerts in 2016, because I was healthy and able. I once had an extra pair of tickets to see Don Henley at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, which is at the former site of Woodstock. I had my Donate life sign and a hand written poster that read “2 free tickets. Must be an Organ Donor.” A couple approached me and asked about the sign. I told them if they showed me their licenses and they were organ donors they could have the tickets, I got a great picture with the couple!
I’ve taken that sign to the Steelers training camp where I was approached by a gentleman that shook my hand and said, “Thank you, I had a heart transplant at Ohio State University three years ago.” Things like this tell me I’m reaching people. That night I went to a Pirates game vs. the Reds and got a great seat next to the camera next to the Reds Dugout. Some Reds also autographed the sign. After the game, while walking across the Roberto Clemente Bridge, I was approached by a guy who was at the game and saw me displaying the sign. A few weeks later I went to a preseason NFL game in Pittsburgh against the Eagles. I was in the front row near the Eagles tunnel where some eagles signed the poster as well.
Whenever I go to a sporting event I write on a poster “Brady & Belichick are NOT organ donors.” It always gets laughs. But what I want to happen is for them to see it or hear about it and say “of course I’m an organ donor” then I have Tom Brady talking about organ donation.
Between 2016 & 17 I’ve spoken or volunteered at over 20 Gift of Life Donor Program events. Our OPO covers eastern PA, southern NJ and all of Delaware. I’ve spoken at hospitals, health fairs training centers, etc. One of my favorite speaking engagements was a training session for 400 DMV employees over 2 days. I told them “I don’t know who my donor was, but it’s quite possible someone in this room asked my donor if they wanted to be an organ donor and they said yes and helped save my life.” This blew them away! Seeing their faces when I said that told me they will remember me when they ask that question in the future.
2017 didn’t start out great. In February I had a colonoscopy that revealed a growth an inch and a half in diameter that had to be surgically removed. So in March I had 8 inches of my colon removed, my appendix and 20 lymph nodes. Luckily I was cancer free to continue my work. I just had to recover from the forth incision, which was length of my abdomen.
This year I created my own nonprofit corporation called the Organ Donation Awareness Tour, Inc. It raises awareness for organ donation in unconventional ways. I try to reach our local television and radio stations for a platform to talk about organ donation. While on dialysis before my second transplant, I bought 2 tickets to see The Rolling Stones in Buffalo on July 11. My transplant was on July 1, so I was unable to attend. A friend from high school contacted me after I wrote a “thank you” on my Facebook page while on my way home after the surgery. She works in PR for Geisinger Medical Center, my transplant center, and wanted to do a story on me. I asked her to help me find a kid who could use a break from an illness. We found a 15-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis and decided to give her the tickets. A local news station met us when I gave her and her mom the tickets. The station did a nice story and the girl chronicled the concert on social media for me.
In Scranton we have the AAA minor affiliate of the NY Yankees, the Railriders. I was able to sponsor Organ Donation Awareness Day with the Railriders on August 6. I had a kidney donor throw out the first pitch to his recipient, a young girl I used to take dialysis with. We were both transplanted only a few months apart. To promote the game, I reached out to a local newsman that had a 1/2-hour show on pubic access. We did the show about a month before the game. Then I reached out to the woman from WNEP TV who did The Rolling Stones story and she did a follow up while promoting the game. At the game I was interviewed on the jumbotron and on the radio by more than 5 stations during the top of the 3rd inning. I did a radio interview back in April (Donate Life Month) on the local classic rock station. I recorded another interview to be played on 5 stations on Sunday 8/27. And I just secured another interview to be recorded 8/21.
I know I’m one of the lucky ones. I also know that if this kidney fails I won’t be able to get another one. I know there are 117,000 people waiting for that magical call like the one I got. I just hope with my efforts, someone gets as lucky as I did. I will always continue to raise awareness for the need or organ donors in unconventional ways.