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Tackling Marathons After Transplant

Fred Girscht is a kidney/pancreas transplant recipient who ran the TCS New York City Marathon with the Chris Klug Foundation in 2013.

I developed Type 1 diabetes in 1980—that’s really where my story begins. I had just turned 24. Of course, me being young and stupid, I hadn’t taken care of myself over the years and that’s what led to my diagnosis. In short, having type 1 diabetes meant that my pancreas wasn’t producing enough insulin, a hormone that helps control the amount of sugar in your bloodstream. Without insulin, sugar can build up in the blood and cause all sorts of serious complications. As a result, I had to take two shots of insulin every day. I also suffered a wide range of health issues for about 18 years before finally starting dialysis in 1999: severe migraines, kidney failure, retinopathy—I had 20 laser surgeries done on each eye to stop the capillaries from bleeding. My memory was also starting to deteriorate right before I went on dialysis, like when I’d be driving and suddenly forget where the gas pedal was.

When I received that initial diagnosis, I was scared to death. My cousin had diabetes as well, although he was worse at taking care of himself than I was. He received a kidney transplant and, unfortunately, passed away not that long after. When he passed, I realized I needed to start taking better care of myself. But, with diabetes, even if you start behaving yourself, it doesn’t help—it just slows down the progression of the disease.

I had been married to my wife, Brenda, for two years at the time. She had two children from a previous marriage—they were four and five when I was diagnosed and our first child together was two. We had our second child in ’86, between my diagnosis and when I eventually went on dialysis.

I seriously thought dialysis was a death sentence. For one thing, it meant that my kidneys were shot. It also meant that I would need a kidney transplant at some point in the future. In addition to the kidney, I would need a new pancreas as well, since my pancreas was the reason I had diabetes in the first place. I ended up having to go to dialysis three times a week for 15 months. The only thing that gave me any peace of mind during that time was the prospect of transplant.

One night in February, after almost a year of being on dialysis, I received my first phone call about a potential kidney/pancreas match for transplant. However, it ended up not working out. It wasn’t until later that March after I’d been moved up on the transplant waitlist pretty high, that they called again. This time, they told me, “You need to get to the transplant center in Cleveland first thing in the morning. We may have found a match, so get ready just in case.” At around eight o’clock that morning, they called back and confirmed that they did, in fact, have a match for me.

The feeling of pure joy I felt upon hearing this news was unlike any I’d ever felt before. Brenda was especially relieved: it meant that she wouldn’t have to take care of me 24/7 anymore. I was on disability throughout the course of my entire illness, so I relied on my wife as my primary caregiver. On top of that, I had a hard time dealing with my mother’s passing the year prior and I ended up growing out a goatee as a way to get my mind off the whole thing. I told Brenda, “It’s not coming off until I’m better.” After receiving the call that morning, she could hardly contain her excitement over the fact that this meant I’d soon be goatee-less.

However, as we made our way from our small town of Salem, Ohio, to the University Hospital of Cleveland two hours away, the reality set in of what was actually about to happen. Brenda and I both grew increasingly nervous—more so, scared if anything—that once I was put under anesthesia, I wouldn’t come out. That was really my only concern. I had heard horror stories of people dying on the operating table mid-transplant. However, at the same time, I knew people personally through my time on dialysis who had successfully received new kidneys and were doing great post-transplant, so in a way, I knew what to expect, but it’s different when you’re now the one in that situation.

After almost nine hours in surgery, I woke up to find myself with a brand-new kidney and pancreas. The operation had gone on without a hitch. I almost immediately noticed a difference in how I was feeling. It was an entirely new experience since I’d been sick for so long—I didn’t know how good it felt not to be sick anymore. To be frank, it felt really, really good.

The next day, Brenda walked right up to my hospital bed with shaving cream and a razor: it was finally time to shave my goatee off. That was definitely a highlight. Then, two days later, Brenda and I celebrated our anniversary in the hospital. It was our first anniversary that I celebrated healthy in 21 years, so it was pretty special. She brought up a cake and we had a little party—the nurses came too.

After being discharged from the hospital, I took about four months off from work so I could make a full recovery. I began to return slowly once I felt up to it and I’ve been working ever since! I love to work—to keep busy, to keep active.

Our daughter became pregnant with her first child in 2008, so my wife and I packed up our house and moved to Columbus to be with our new grandchild. For the first three months after the move, I stayed home with the baby while my daughter went back to work. That was a very humbling experience for me and one I’d never had before since I always had to work after our own kids were born. I’ve worn lots of different faces, but “grandpa” will always be my favorite.

The whole running thing started the following year when my daughter and I decided to run a half-marathon together. Neither of us had ever run before, so it was really a couch-to-half-marathon deal. I remember the first run we ever did together: we were supposed to run four miles. I was doing pretty good for the first two and then I just faded completely. It was an entirely new experience for both of us, so we did all of our training together (we even took the baby with us on some of our weekly runs!). We ended up successfully completing the half-marathon that year.

Since then, I’ve just kept going. My daughter continued having kids, so she doesn’t run as much as I do. However, in 2013, she found out about the Chris Klug Foundation (CKF) and read up on Chris’ story. CKF was hosting a contest at the time for people touched by organ donation, with the chosen winners receiving a spot to run in that year’s TCS New York City Marathon. My daughter decided to write a letter to the foundation, detailing my transplant journey as well as my passion for running, and I won one of the coveted spots! It was only my second time running a marathon and I ended up doing awful, but I finished and that’s all that matters! It was the first time Brenda and I had ever been to New York City and it was an extremely humbling and inspiring experience: seeing all the fans and spectators while getting to participate in a race with 50,000 other runners. It was crazy. I’m from a small town of about 10,000 people, so seeing that many people in one area was unreal. While you’re running the race, so many people cheer for you, no matter who you are. I had run the Columbus Marathon prior to NYC, but it was much smaller, so running in New York with CKF was pretty extraordinary.

Now, I run every Saturday—I haven’t missed a Saturday of running in nearly five years at least. Getting out and running is just so peaceful. You get to talk to whoever you’re running with, catch up with friends, see what’s going on in their lives…you get to interact with so many good people. And my running group is the best; they are my support team. People of all different ages, backgrounds, ethnicities, personalities—we just get together and run (speaking of, we’re running 12 miles tomorrow!). I’m currently training for the Columbus Marathon again this year. It’ll be my seventh marathon in total. I just ran my 40th half-marathon last week!

It’s so easy to come up with excuses not to go running on any given day. It’s easy to say, “Oh, it’s too cold,” or “No, my head hurts,” but showing up is half the battle. Once you’re out there running, you’ve made it! You’re doing what you said you couldn’t do when you started out that day.

I’m currently an ambassador for the local organ procurement organization (OPO) here in Columbus, called Lifeline of Ohio. They hosted a 5K race last summer, with about 3,500 people signed up in total. I had a team of 85 people running and they all ran in honor of my donor.

I received both my kidney and pancreas from the same person: a 24-year old deceased donor named Rob Gates. He had just gotten off of work that day, so it was early in the morning, and he was on his way to meet his friends to go golfing. Rob was driving down I-480, a highway around Cleveland, and he didn’t have his seatbelt on. He suddenly lost control of his truck and was thrown from his vehicle. He was air-lifted to the nearest hospital but slipped into a coma. He actually woke up after two days and could acknowledge the people around him. The only problem was that he was seeing things in his peripheral vision that weren’t there. Thinking he was doing okay, his family went home for the night. Rob was declared braindead the next morning.

It took almost five years for me to reach out to his family. I eventually wrote a letter to the local OPO, who passed it on to his family. The family responded and said they wanted to meet, so the first step was to set up a phone call. That was extremely emotional. I ended up meeting them all in-person in 2006 and we hit it off almost instantly: his parents, his two sisters, and his nephews. Initially, I was afraid they wouldn’t like me; that they thought I somehow played a part in his death—which I obviously had nothing to do with—but it was the way I felt. I thought they’d blame me for his death, but they didn’t. Actually, it’s quite the opposite: they are always behind me, supporting me, no matter what. Sometimes, I’ll go and stay over at their house to spend time with them. We are all very close. I actually just attended one of his nephews’ graduations. When I ran the Cleveland Half-Marathon back in 2014, they all came to support me and cheered me on the whole way. I consider myself very lucky to know them and to have them in my life today. And I consider myself even luckier to have received this second chance at life through Rob’s decision to be an organ donor. His selflessness has allowed me to do things I probably never would have done without going through the difficult experience of being sick and eventually recovering through him. I owe Rob my life—I am forever grateful.

Original interview on June 26, 2019. Transcribed, edited, and rewritten by CC Cunningham, CKF Program Manager.

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