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Living Donor Ironman

Steve Wilson is a living kidney donor who altruistically donated his kidney to a complete stranger in February this year. Three months prior to his donation surgery, he competed in the 2019 IRONMAN Arizona, a nearly 141-mile triathlon held in Tempe, AZ each year. Steve is currently training for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii this October. This is Steve’s Donor Story.

Why did I donate my kidney?

I was introduced to the concept of living kidney donation 21 years ago. My high school buddy, Brian, told me he was going to donate one of his kidneys to his infant son. I remember thinking, “Is he serious? Is that even possible?” Brian informed me that not only was the procedure of living kidney donation medically possible, people also live perfectly normal lives with just one kidney. He was right: Brian himself went on to have a distinguished career as an officer with the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and his son, who was the recipient of his father’s kidney so long ago, went on to pitch for his college baseball team. It was at that point I knew the seeds of inspiration had been sown in my mind.

It wasn’t until about 11 years after this initial brush with living donation when those seeds really began to sprout: my own cousin actually ended up donating a kidney to his wife in her ultimate time of need. “How cool is that?” I remember thinking.  He saved the life of another human being—his own spouse. Now, that is the stuff of love stories. I knew then that the idea of living kidney donation was in my mind to stay.

It all started with a bike ride.

I guess you could say it all started with a bike ride. One of my absolute favorite things to do is ride my bicycle and my favorite place to do it is Seven Lakes Drive—or, as I call it, “the mountain.” It’s where I go to engage in my deepest reflections and it’s a place that never fails to inundate my spirit with immense gratitude and appreciation. A recurring thought I have on these rides is, “If there is a heaven, this is it.” I wish everyone could experience the level of exhilaration and ecstasy I do when I’m there.

One morning last June, I experienced what I initially thought was a moment of emotional weakness—in retrospect, it was probably more so one of strength and clarity. I was scrolling through Facebook just prior to my bike ride when I came across a post from an old friend of mine from high school. Her daughter (who I’ll call “Julia”) had just received a lifesaving kidney transplant from a woman in her hometown (who I’ll call “Lisa”). By the time I reached the end of the post, I was overcome by a wide range of emotions: firstly, I was beyond grateful that my own children were healthy; I was deeply saddened at the thought of the immense pain, despair, and helplessness Julia’s parents must have felt while watching their daughter suffer before a donor was identified; and finally, I felt a sense of awe and inspiration like I had never experienced before in my life. What an amazing gift—an incredible legacy—that Lisa was able to provide not only to this girl and her family, but to humankind as a whole. To me, it was the ultimate act of selflessness and sacrifice. If there has ever been a way to live past yourself—to live a life beyond your own—therein lay the answer. I kept thinking to myself, “I want to do what that woman did.”

While I rode my bike on that June summer day, I could feel the adrenaline flooding through my bloodstream. As the miles passed, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my all-time favorite movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, and its profound message of one life impacting countless others. If I could save one person’s life, how many other lives would be impacted? What sort of ripple effect could that create? It was then that the concept of living kidney donation became a real, tangible possibility for me. What if I could be someone’s second shot at life? What if I could give someone another chance to ride their own bicycle on their own Seven Lakes Drive? Admittedly, as these thoughts raced through my head with each passing mile, I assumed—and even hoped—that this idea would subside by the end of the ride. Honestly, I was scared. I didn’t yet know enough about the organ donation process to feel comfortable pursuing it as a course of action. Thankfully, however, I couldn’t seem to shake this compelling thought from my head—the seeds had firmly taken root. It only continued to intensify over the next several weeks.

Making the call.

It didn’t take long for me to begin researching the topic of living kidney donation and I soon became amazed at what was possible. I quickly learned that those born with two kidneys have exactly one more kidney than was really needed. I discovered that I could donate an entire kidney and, other than a minimal disruption to my regular lifestyle and routine for about a week or so, it wouldn’t have any impact on my active way of life or long-term health. I also learned about the concept of a kidney chain, which occurs when an initial “non-directed” (or voluntary) living donor is willing to donate their kidney to a stranger altruistically, who himself has a living kidney donor who is willing, but medically incompatible. The non-directed donor donates his kidney to the stranger, whose willing donor then donates to another recipient (who also has a willing, but incompatible donor). The willing donor for the second recipient then donates her kidney to the third recipient and so on and so forth. In short, a non-directed donor can save the lives of several different people through the sequence of lifesaving transplants a kidney chain allows.

At this point, it was time to share my findings with my wife, who, as I expected, was totally supportive of the idea. I knew then that my decision had been finalized: I was going to do it. On a sunny July day in a Somers, NY supermarket parking lot, I made the call to the Kidney Transplant Center at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital (NYP).

I had no idea what to expect as the phone rang. However, it all ended up being fairly straightforward. I was asked some basic medical questions during the initial call and subsequently directed to a page on their website to answer more detailed health-related questions, which I completed as soon as I got off the phone. Within two days, the Transplant Center called and requested I come in for a full day of evaluations, which included blood tests, a PET scan, CAT scan, EKG, numerous stress tests, and a thorough assessment of my mental health.

Donation clearance granted.

In late August—just one month after placing that initial call—my wife accompanied me to NYP’s Kidney Transplant Center for what ended up being the most comprehensive medical exam I’ve ever been through. Although I was at peak health and physical fitness at the time—seeing as how I was at the height of my training for the IRONMAN Arizona triathlon—I still felt unsure of whether I’d be deemed healthy enough to donate one of my organs. I’d had fourteen surgeries prior, including a bilateral knee replacement, seven shoulder surgeries, and two cadaver disks implanted into my spine. I didn’t know, donation-wise, if I’d be considered “damaged goods”. Luckily, all of my tests were completely normal, with the exception of elevated creatinine levels, which I was told were likely due to my intense Ironman training. The doctors assured me that they would be testing my creatinine levels again after I’d completed the race. I completed the IRONMAN Arizona triathlon just three months later, on November 25th, 2019

After one final round of blood tests in early January, 2020, I was cleared to donate my kidney. My blood work was submitted to the National Kidney Registry, a national database that matches kidney donors (both living and deceased) with recipients. It didn’t take long to hear back: in fact, that week, I received a call alerting me that I was a perfect match with a 53-year-old woman in Seattle. If I was ready, the transplant surgery would be scheduled for early the next month, on February 6th. Not only was I ready, I was completely and totally thrilled.

Go time.

On February 6th, I reported to NYP’s Transplant Center bright and early at 5 a.m. and was in the operating room by 7. As I was being wheeled into the operating room, one of the nurses pointed out a sturdy, orange Styrofoam box, occupying the small, square table that was only a few feet off to the side of the operating table. I knew exactly what is was before she even told me. This was the “orange box” I had heard so much about through all of my research: it would serve as my kidney’s transport safe for the duration of its journey to Seattle, a first-class cabin for its flight across the country. The nurse proudly pointed out the GPS attached to the box and assured me it would allow them to track my kidney’s every movement, from the time it was taken out of me until it arrived at its final destination: inside the abdomen of a very sick Seattle woman.

As I lay on the cold stainless steel operating table, repeatedly apologizing to the OR nurses for my indecent exposure, the head honcho—NYP’s chief transplant surgeon—Dr. Joseph Del Pizzo suddenly strutted into the room. Although I had met Dr. Del Pizzo several times before, every time I encountered him, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This guy just oozes cool.” My wife even commented once that he looks like he fell out of a GQ magazine right into a white lab coat. He possessed the calm and confident demeanor of a natural-born leader, someone who completely knows what they’re doing. His reputation as a transplant surgeon is unparalleled.

It was at this point that Dr. Del Pizzo touched my ankle, looked me dead in the eye, and said “It’s go-time, Steve. Are you ready to save a life?” I immediately replied, “I can’t wait, Doc. I don’t have a fear in the world. Let’s rock ‘n’ roll,” as I faded off into the anesthesiological abyss.

I was released from hospital about 26 hours after surgery and was working—albeit from home—within three days. I’ve begun training for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in October 2020 and I’d never know that I’m training with just one kidney. This year, I’ll be racing on behalf of the Kidney Donor Athletes organization so that I may continue to spread the message of the tremendous benefits of living organ donation. If anyone would like to contact me with questions, please reach out at wilsoncpatax@gmail.com.

Written by Steve Wilson, living kidney donor. Edited by CC Cunningham, CKF Program Manager.

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