There is a big difference between being alive and living.
Fifteen years ago, I was alive but didn’t know how long I would live or if I’d ever be able to get back to living a normal life. At the time, I was 19 years old and had spent almost one year in the hospital fighting for my life. Leading up to this critical time in my journey, my weak body had fought through epilepsy since the age of five, polycystic kidney disease (PKD) that was diagnosed at the age of 10, scoliosis surgery when I was 12, countless hospital stays, bilateral nephrectomy at 18, dialysis, pancreatitis, a near-death experience of internal bleeding, and I had received more than 70 blood transfusions. After battling through all of this, it was a kidney transplant that I needed in order to survive.
Due to how ill I was in 2002, I was too sick to be placed on the transplant waiting list but was in dire need of a kidney. My only viable option was a living kidney donor. Several individuals stepped forward to get tested to be my donor and, miraculously, a match was found. My angel’s name is Sally Robertson, who has been a family friend since I was in eighth grade.
August 13th, 2017 marks a remarkable milestone – 15 years since Sally gave me a second chance at life and afforded me the opportunity to start living again. It is devastating to think that I would have died at a young age if a kidney had not been found. I can’t fathom not experiencing the past 15 years of my life, because they have been extraordinary. The beautiful thing of having a living kidney donor is that I get to celebrate the highs in life with Sally, and she is also always there to support me through the challenging times. Our bond and love for one another is unexplainable and irreplaceable. I’m so grateful to share this journey with her in a manner that is impossible to share with anyone else. I trust she can feel my gratitude by how I strive to lead my life with positivity, passion and purpose.
Little did I know 15 years ago the profound effect and impact Sally’s kidney would have on not only me, but so many others. When thinking back to the days when I was pre-transplant and an incredibly ill young woman at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I did not have any dreams or goals. I could only focus on each day, with one hope – to live to see the next day. Now I am a strong 34-year-old woman full of dreams and goals.
I am in awe of how my body has bounced back and what I have been able to experience and accomplish because of the gift of life. I’m not only surviving post-transplant, but I am thriving. Thanks to my kidney transplant, I was able to fall in love with my husband, Noah. The past 10 years with him have been extraordinary and he is an exemplary caregiver. I was unable to travel when I was young due to my health issues, so it was a dream come true when Noah and I spent a month traveling cross-country. We visited national parks and experienced nature at its finest. We did this memorable trip in 2010, when we moved from Pennsylvania to California. This taught me what two people can accomplish together and how awesome change is. The year after our move, we got married on a granite foundation in Yosemite National Park. We love to seek adventure, explore and soak in the natural beauty that surrounds us, something I was unable to do pre-transplant.
My new lease on life inspired me to become a voice for multiple causes such as PKD, kidney research and organ donation. It has been an honor to share my transplant story at more than 90 public events across North America. I also love sharing my journey through writing. Over the past five years, I’ve written more than 210 articles, which have been published by the PKD Foundation on my blog – PKD Will Not Beat Me. In addition, my biography, “My Favorite American” written by Canadian author Dennis McCloskey was published in 2008. I’ve also had the honor of riding on the Donate Life Float in the Rose Parade and was named the first ever Davita Kidney Idol.
I can’t imagine missing out on all of these experiences if it were not for the power of organ donation. My transplant has taught me–and continues to teach me–so much about the meaning of life. Living with chronic health issues has instilled in me a deep appreciation that our lives can change and/or be taken from us in a split second. Every day is so important and the gift of time is extremely valuable. Life is to be lived to the fullest, appreciated with all of our heart, filled with love, and made as meaningful as possible. The gift of life means everything to me. I intend to live the rest of my days as passionately and giving as possible. I will forever strive to make my donor proud, live with grace, and set the best example I can for others. I hope to inspire others to give someone else a second chance at life, as I was so fortunate to receive, and the opportunity to discover the true meaning of life, which is to live life and give life.
By Valen Keefer