one year later

I woke up this morning with a distinct awareness of all the wonderful things I have in my life for which I should be – and am – thankful. Today has been unseasonably warm, and as I left my 5:30am CrossFit class, I couldn’t help but smile at the fact that it is finally light out when I leave the gym to head home. March 8th – that’s today – is World Kidney Day. And for me, my recipient, and the other recipients and donors in the chain I kicked off , today marks one year since that fateful day that changed all our lives forever.

On March 8th, 2011, I went into the hospital with two kidneys and left with one. Elsewhere in New Jersey, a woman about my mother’s age was waiting on an operating table as my left kidney made its journey to, and eventually into, her. Her friend also donated that day so that my recipient could get my kidney, and so on and so forth.

I won’t sugarcoat it and tell you my recovery was a walk in the park. It wasn’t (and you can read all about it on earlier posts). But it was nothing compared to what my recipient faced before my kidney came into her life. And here I am, exactly 12 months later, feeling stronger, fitter, and healthier than ever, and with an entirely different outlook on life. I’ve learned that health is a delicate thing that can be taken from us in an instant, so all we can do is give it every bit of attention it deserves (and more) and cherish every second of it while we have it.

Since I donated my kidney, I’ve gotten engaged, started a new career, joined CrossFit, and became a vegetarian (Ok, ok. I slip here and there). But I’ve had just as many downs as I’ve had ups. Life’s funny like that. But what’s different about life now and life pre-donation is how I approach it, view it, and handle what it throws my way. I absolutely still have my I-just-can’t-take-it-anymore moments, and there are still days that I wish I had never gotten out of bed at all. I’ve cried, yelled, been overwhelmed and spread too thin, gotten angry or sad, had aches and pains and sores, and days when nothing seemed to go right from sun up to sun down. Then again, I’ve laughed so hard my cheeks hurt, I’ve loved so deeply it brought me to tears, I’ve run and played and let go of every care in the world, and had moments of such sublime happiness and feelings of being more alive than ever before.

Every day has brought me something new, but there was one thing that has not changed for the last 365 days: I’ve opened my eyes in the morning and thanked the powers that be that I got to see another day. And then, without fail, my thoughts have drifted to my kidney, the one I decided to part with all those months ago, and how that one little organ has allowed another fellow human being to see another day too. That’s when I know that no matter what this day brings, I’m ready, and it’s worth it.

So on this one year anniversary of my kidney donation, and on World Kidney Day (how perfect!), I ask you to do a few simple things: Drink a lot of water. Make sure you’re getting enough fruits and veggies, every single day. Eat clean. Train dirty. Work smart and play hard. Laugh, relax, and love. Stay positive, keep cool, and aspire every day to be even a slightly better person than you were the day before. Make your health a non-negotiable.  Take time to really see your life for what it is and truly appreciate everything it has given you. We only get one body, one life, one chance; better do it right.

Yes, it is. Me with my fiance, Bobby.

 

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.  [Ferris Bueller]


with an eye to the past

Well, here we are. Another year has come and gone, leaving behind both wonderful lifelong memories and painful scars alike. 2011 was a year of incredible transition for me: I lost my job (good riddance!), donated my kidney to an incredible woman and kick started a chain that has saved at least three lives, got engaged to the most amazing man I’ve ever met, started an exciting and promising new career, and committed myself to a huge lifestyle change that includes the switch to a meat-, wheat-, and dairy-free diet. Yup, 2011 was certainly one for the books.

As much as I complain about January – it’s neverending, it’s bone-chillingly cold, and my warm blood drives me into a virtual social hibernation – I’ve always had a soft spot for the month of all-things-new. There’s my end-of-January birthday (the big 2-7 this year… I’m officially approaching 30 and I’m not pleased about that), but beyond that, January brings a fresh start for us all. It’s another chance to do things right, to start over, to forget the woulda, coulda, shoulda, and just do and be. All that overindulging, the pessimism, the rushing around, the failure to enjoy the moment, the missed opportunities and the chances you wished you’d taken – that was last year. SO 2011. But 2012, this year… well this year will be a different story. A story of health, optimisim, c’est la vie and carpe diem and all that good stuff. We can’t forget what the past year brought us, but we can accept it, learn from it, and move forward.

Thinking about all the changes I went through in 2011 and all those – known and unknown – that await me in 2012 makes me a little emotional. Not just because of what 2011 meant to me in so many ways, both good and bad, but because today is my kidney recipient’s birthday, and I can’t help but think about what 2011 meant to her. 2011 brought her – literally – a new life, a fresh start, a chance to make every day count, for many more days to come. The fact that she is alive and well and celebrating her birthday today is a testament to the miracle of living donation, and a great example of the power each of us holds to transform a life. I don’t have any spare kidneys left to donate (though I wish I did!), but I have something just as good – my time and my compassion.

That’s why this year, on top of all the other wonderful things I have planned – getting married (!), traveling to Europe for the first (and second) time, perhaps another move – I’m doing something a little different. Instead of leaving 2011 completely behind, I’m taking it with me by using the negatives to become more positive, and by moving full steam ahead with all the great things that I began last year. That means continued work in the donor community, more time volunteering for other causes that are near and dear to my heart, constantly pushing myself to eat healthier and work out harder, and seizing every opportunity – both personally and professionally – that comes my way.  And this time around, I’m doing it not only for myself, but for my loved ones, for my kidney recipient, and for every person out there who would give anything to have the opportunity to start again like we do – not just each Janaury, but every single day our lives.

If 2011 was the Year of Change, 2012 will be the Year of Results. Yeah… I like that way that sounds.

 

A year from now you will wish  you had started today.  [Karen Lamb]


what’s the alternative?

Whew. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? I apologize for my long absence – but sometimes, life just gets in the way, doesn’t it?

First and foremost, an update on the kidney front: my recipient and I have finally connected! As a testament to the weird ways the universe works some times, it all went down on September 11th. At that point, more than 6 months since my surgery, I had essentially given up on ever hearing from her. I told my coordinator I was open to it, gave her my contact information, and trusted that it would find the right hands. Little did I know, my recipient (and her friend who donated so that she could get my kidney) had been searching for me for months. Months. How that happens when both coordinators are aware of the search on both ends, I won’t even venture to guess. But there I was, watching coverage of the 9/11 Memorial in downtown NYC, saddened by the memory of such incredible loss, and a Facebook notification popped up on my phone, alerting me that I had a message. The message was along the lines of “I hope you’re the right Melissa. I believe you donated your kidney to my friend. We’ve been dying to talk to you.” A few quick messages later (ok, after I completely broke down in tears for a good 15 minutes, too) and I was emailing with my recipient herself - alive and oh-so-well! Her story is beyond incredible, and her passion for life and deep appreciation for my kidney is nothing short of extraordinary. It was the most perfect, beautiful ending to this crazy ride, and I’m so happy to say that I have a ‘kidney sister’ for life!

Incredibly emotional, tear-jerking reunions aside, these last few months have really flown by. Between starting a new job (finally!), planning a wedding (yay!), working with my non-profit, and the usual demands of friends, family, fiance, and furry children, there just hasn’t been a spare minute to collect my thoughts! I have a bit of a problem saying ‘no’ to people - friends, family, coworkers, you name it. As a fellow donor who shares this problem said, this need to always feel like we’re helping or caring for someone is epitomized by the fact that we donated. Great point. And helping others, making sure our loved ones are happy, that is a truly noble and wonderful way to live life. But sometimes, we need to remember whose life it is to begin with.

The silence here on my blog is so very reflective of my life since my last post. Oh, sure, there has been so much going on, but when it came to putting myself first – nothing. Somewhere in the midst of trying to be the perfect new employee, the perfect fiance, daughter, sister, friend, humanitarian, animal mom, and kidney donor, I forgot to just be… me. The hard proof of that fact is that I haven’t written in months (something I truly love), but more importantly, I haven’t really given myself the time to even reflect on my life and all that’s going on right now. And what good can I be to others if I’m no good to myself?

On top of all this, I’ve been battling some unrelenting fatigue as a result of my kidney donation. I’m only about 7 months out of surgery – technically speaking my insides are still healing – so this is completely normal and expected. But the more research I’ve done, the more donors I’ve spoken with, the more I’ve realized that sometimes, even long after the body is done healing itself, the fatigue sticks around like the last, lingering guest at a party that went on for too long to begin with. I’ve always loved the fact that I had the energy to keep myself healthy and active, and so this was something I just could not accept. ‘It’s just how it is,’ I was told. ‘You’ll learn to live with it.’ Well, not me. I’ve never really been a rule-follower.

A huge advocate for alternative healing methods, I decided it was time to turn to an expert. I went to see a natural health consultant last week and it was like a little light bulb went off in my head. Everything she said seemed to just make sense and it was then, sitting in her office on the Upper East Side, that I began to feel all the pieces of my fragmented life come together. I eat healthy, I take a daily multivitamin and a few other supplements, and I work out – hard. I was making such an effort to do all these things for myself, but forgetting ‘me’ in the process. I was told all the things I expected and long believed in (but needed a good kick in the pants to get going on): that I needed to take even more supplements, start juicing, and cut out meat, dairy, and wheat from my diet (I’m Italian so this is like telling me to stop breathing air). But what I was completely losing sight of was the mind-body connection. Ahhhhhh, yes. The ‘Me’ in ‘Melissa’.

I was given the following directives: meditate at least 30 minutes a day; take one full hour (though not necessarily all at once if not possible) away from my desk each work day (no more working through lunch!); rid myself of negative people and emotions; and begin to look at stress in one of two ways: as good information (acknowledging how I can change the things that are within my control) or free, live entertainment (learning to let go of the things that I can’t change). We can eat all the super foods in the world, take every supplement known to man and nature, and work out 7 days a week, but the fact of the matter is, if we’re not healthy mentally, we’ll never be healthy physically. My body knows that already – my external donation wounds are all healed and barely noticeable, but the internal healing takes more time. Though I can’t see that, I can sure feel it. Now I just need to get my mind on board. Going through the movements of eating right and working out will no longer cut it. I need to let go of past hurts and grudges, harness my inner calm, and learn to put me first again. My life – and my remaining kidney – depend on it.

I know it won’t be easy. I’ll have to make some difficult sacrifices, completely change the way I think about life (and food), and learn how to really and truly be in the now. But isn’t that what life’s all about anyway? What good is a life which, at the end of it, was never truly lived to begin with? And doesn’t true living require true wellness – mind, body, and spirit? I’ve always known the answer. Now I finally have the tools to get there, and get there I will. After all, I owe it to everyone myself.

 

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.  [Steve Jobs]


the ride of a lifetime

The first half of 2011 has been quite a personal roller coaster ride. January brought the good news that I was cleared by Cornell to donate my kidney, and with February came the confirmation that a donor – and the rest of my cluster – had been successfully matched. Up, up, up. When March rolled around, however, down the first big drop I went when I was fired from my job just one week before donation surgery. It was a devastating blow, a low of epic proportions, but was tempered by the exhilaration of my successful kidney donation surgery on the morning of March 8th, 2011. The ultimate high.

April and May were relative lulls in comparison – the unexpected, but deeply appreciated ups of my story in the Huffington Post and my surprise nomination for a Classy Award, and the more expected, though sobering, lows of unemployment in an utterly dismal job market. There were times, admittedly, that I felt completely hopeless as I read story after story of individuals ten times more qualified than I am, sitting for months, even years, on employment. It’s a harsh reality of an even harsher economy. Additionally, I was (and still am) going through a bit of a low point in my recovery – while I feel 100% myself in nearly every single way, the one place where my surgery still shows is in my ability to run. I have made some progress – when I first got back into it I could barely go a mile without stopping (coming from someone who has run both a half- and full marathon, mind you!) – and at least now I’ve about tripled my capabilities. I know my body is still working overtime inside, however healthy I outwardly appear, but I began to see my goal of running a half marathon this September slip away. For someone who has forever prided herself on her athleticism, that’s a tough pill to swallow. Lastly, I still hadn’t (and haven’t) heard from my recipient. I never expected anything (nor do I regret my decision), but I can’t say that I’m not the littlest bit disappointed. Hearing she’s doing well is the most wonderful news a donor could hope for, but hearing it from my coordinator and hearing it straight from her mouth are just not the same.

June 1st, however, sent me on the most lovely and exhilarating loop of a young woman’s life. It was the 4-year anniversary of the start of my relationship with my boyfriend, Bobby. We had dinner plans and tickets to see Avenue Q and I was looking forward to it for weeks. I bought champagne to celebrate the most amazing relationship – and man – I’d ever known. And as he walked in the door from work that evening, as I scurried about to get ready for the fun night ahead, he gave us another reason to pop that cork every June 1st: he bent down on one knee, proposed, and placed the most gorgeous ring I’d ever seen on my finger. Hugs, tears, and excited kisses and YES!’s later, and he made me the happiest woman on Earth. My boyfriend is no longer my boyfriend; he is my fiance and I will announce that title proudly until the day I can finally call him my husband.

Life, like love, like sickness and health, is nothing but a series of ups and downs. Sometimes we’re riding so high that we think nothing can touch us, until one day out of the blue it all comes crumbling down and it seems like nothing will ever be the same. But on the other hand, there are other times when we feel like nothing can pull us out of the funk we are in, that things will never get better and the sooner we accept that, the sooner we can go on existing. And then, along comes the sun. Because life isn’t about existing, it’s about living. It’s about recognizing that the sun sets, but it always rises; that storms hit but always pass, and with them often come the most glorious rainbows. Sometimes the lows aren’t so low, and the highs aren’t so high, and I like to think of those times as resting and rebuilding periods for the next super high or super low hiding just around the corner. So take advantage of those times – take the time to recoup, reflect, and appreciate your life as it is at that moment, because the next big thing – whether it be good or bad – will always be there. It cannot be predicted, only weathered. And how we weather it makes all the difference in the world.

 

There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.  [Sir Rannulph Fiennes]


a lifelong mission

This week has been truly eye-opening for me. As many of you may already know, The Huffington Post asked to interview me about my donation for their Impact page and I readily agreed! Journalist Katie Bindley and I met in the city and talked at length about my donation process and how my life has changed since becoming a living donor. The interview was featured in their Greatest Person of the Day column – feel free to read my story here.

I knew family and friends and a few casual readers might stumble across my story, but I was in no way ready for the overwhelming traffic and feedback it received. Hundreds of people left comments of support, encouragement, and thanks on the story itself, on Facebook and on Twitter. It was posted, reposted, and posted again and tweeted hundreds of times. It was even translated into other languages and onto foreign news sources, as people have sent me Turkish, Spanish, and Greek versions of the story, among others. Word of my story spread like rapid fire and I immediately started getting messages and emails from people showing their support and gratitude from not only across the country, but around the globe. I’ve heard from people in Spain, England, New Zealand, Greece, Turkey, Canada… the list goes on and on. Some of these people are kidney recipients, some are donors, some are people watching a loved one suffer from kidney disease, and some are just grateful. One woman said she felt so inspired by the interview that she immediately registered with the National Kidney Registry to become a living donor herself! To say I feel honored and touched is the understatement of all understatements. As I read each and every comment, email and message I received, I was brought to tears more times than I care to admit.

What I found most striking, however, was the gratitude that was expressed. Not just any gratitude though. While I so very deeply appreciate the wonderful support and appreciation from everyone who read and reached out, it was the gratitude of kidney patients waiting on the transplant list that resonated the most with me. Here are people, just like you and me, who want nothing more than to live a healthy, full life, who are helplessly watching their bodies betray them, desperately waiting for a kidney to change their lives, and they’re thanking me for what I’ve done. My kidney didn’t directly help any of these people. These wonderful human beings who have every right in the world to be angry, bitter, and downtrodden, are anything but. In fact, they are the most genuine, optimistic, brave, and appreciative people I’ve ever come across in my life. Each and every one of them is truly happy for my recipient, truly grateful for my sacrifice, even though it has not changed their health one bit. Many of them called me a hero, but it’s not me that’s heroic. It’s them.

The response from my interview confirmed and rekindled my passion to continue my mission to promote living donation. I believe we’re all put on this Earth to accomplish something important in life – or perhaps many somethings – but sometimes it takes the courage of others to show us exactly what that is. Even before my surgery, I knew that my dedication to this cause would not end the day I left the hospital, and since then I have had the great honor of working with a very tight-knit group of living donors whose sole mission is to protect donor rights and improve the living donation system in America. We’re hoping that by utilizing each of our unique talents, sharing our personal stories, and passionately working on behalf of all current and future donors, this small group will one day become a large, national project that will identify, address, and improve both the shared and unique issues encountered by living donors. Additionally, our mission is also to provide a source or information, advice, and support for all living donors or those who are considering donation.

To that end, we have created the first of several surveys to address one aspect of donation – its financial impact on living donors. If you are a living donor, please take a few minutes to take this brief survey, or if you know of a living donor, please pass it along to them. No personal information needs to be disclosed, nor will any of your responses be made public. The survey is completely anonymous and simply asks for living donors to prioritize their financial needs throughout the donation process. If interested, you can find the survey on this link: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/LivingDonor

Another important thing that happened to me this week, and the donor community in general, is that a woman who read my story on the Huffington Post nominated me for a CLASSY Award. The CLASSY Awards recognize top charitable achievements across the country, both by individuals and organizations. The winner will receive more than $150,000 in cash and prizes for their cause which, in my case, is the National Kidney Registry. The only way to advance to the next round of judging however, is to receive 100 Facebook ‘Likes’. If you’d like to support me and the cause for living donation, please take a minute to visit the link here and ‘Like’ it – and thank you in advance! http://www.stayclassy.org/stories/woman-inspired-by-magazine-article-makes-a-life-changing-decision-for-a-complete-stranger

Living donation is not for everyone, but there are endless ways to give back to those in need that require little effort when compared to the good in which they result. So often our busy schedules muddle what’s truly important in life. I’m just as guilty as the next person, as I, too, often get consumed by my personal issues and problems. But the next time an opportunity comes along to help someone (or some animal!) in need, I urge you to think twice. None of us are untouchable; life changes in an blinding instant with no warning and no mercy, and one day you just might be that person looking for a helping hand.

The difference between a helping hand and an outstretched palm is a twist of the wrist.  [Laurence Leamer]


a gift from many

It’s been about two months since my surgery and I’m feeling great. For a while, my energy levels were extremely low, but I was getting antsy and bored from not doing all that much with my days compared to how my life had been prior to donation. As a fellow kidney donor so perfectly put it, I felt ‘too good to do nothing, but not good enough to do anything.’ And though I still do need the occasional midday nap, and I definitely find myself crashing much earlier in the evening, I have to say that all in all, I feel like myself again. Sometimes I’ll get a sudden pang of discomfort in various places in my abdomen – typically near the incision – but I know that’s simply my body still hard at work healing itself. I’m back to working out and running (though a bit slower than before and not covering quite the same distances I once did, but I’m working on it!) and a day full of errands no longer seems like a daunting task. My incision looks great and I even dare to say that if you didn’t know I had this operation, you might not even notice the scar. Not too shabby!

Though for the most part I’m back to life as normal, not a day goes by that I don’t think about my surgery. I haven’t heard from my recipient, but I do know from my transplant coordinator that she’s doing well, healing wonderfully, and on the track to a better quality of life than she’s known in quite some time. Despite this knowledge, I do still think about her all the time. I wonder if she’s returning to her life as she knew it before dialysis. I think about how much my life has changed since donating my kidney and can only marvel at the drastic shift I’m sure her life has taken since her transplant. Almost everyone I encounter asks me if I’ve heard from her, and then apologizes when I tell them that I haven’t. But I’m not sorry, and I never will be even if I never hear from her for as long as I live. I know that if she’s choosing not to reach out to me, there’s a reason that none of us could understand without having walked in her shoes. And I respect her decision. This was a gift, and gifts should not be given with thanks in mind. I didn’t go through with this donation with the intention of making a friend out of my recipient, I did it to save people’s lives. And if I gain a friend in the process, well then that’s just an added bonus.

But this donation was not a gift given only by me, but by all the countless people who helped me along the way. When I think about this journey, I can’t help but be humbled by the support, love, and appreciation I was shown by everyone from family, friends, former colleagues, medical professionals, the donor/kidney community, and even complete strangers. Prayers, well wishes, messages, phone calls, cards, letters, flowers, gifts, home cooked meals and freshly baked goods, hugs, kisses, time devoted, advice shared, support given unconditionally – without all of this, the gift of my kidney to my recipient simply would not have been possible. I could never thank you all enough for everything you’ve done – though God knows I will try my best. Please know that because of you, just as much as because of me, three people’s lives have been forever changed, improved, and renewed. It took my decision to begin this process, but it took the unwavering love and support of my friends and family to see it through to the end. So on behalf of myself, my recipient, and every patient out there whose lives have been saved by organ donation, THANK YOU. This was truly a gift not from one, but from many, and it is by far the most beautiful gift of them all: the gift of life.

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.  [Leo Buscaglia]


1 kidney down, 3 recipients going strong

Wow, it feels so good to be writing again. It’s been a long time and a lot sure has happened since my last post. I apologize for the long silence – with the recovery, the job hunt, and everything else going on, it’s been hard to find the time to just quietly sit down and write. But it’s about time I did and I guess I should just take it from the top, right?

My parents, my boyfriend and I arrived at NYP at about 5:45 am on Tuesday, March 8th (I’ve never seen the city streets look so empty and quiet!). Although a little anxious to get things underway, I felt a surreal sort of calm where I’d assumed I’d feel nervous. In fact, not at one point throughout the entire morning leading up to surgery did I feel nervous. That’s due in part to my wonderful support system and the amazing transplant team at Weill Cornell, but I also believe that it was a sign that I was meant to do this – that everything that has happened in my life thus far was leading me to this very moment. I felt very at peace with myself and my life and all that was happening.

My boyfriend, Bobby, and me in the waiting room.

Most of the morning was spent waiting – me and my caravan moving from waiting room to waiting room. My first stop was to change into my hospital pants, socks, gown, and robe. After that, I was taken into a small room to have a little bit more blood taken (which proved to be a somewhat difficult since I hadn’t eaten since about 11 am the morning before or had anything to drink since 10 pm the previous night). After a bit more waiting, Dr. Del Pizzo (my surgeon) came in to mark up my abdomen. At that point it was officially determined that my left kidney would be removed through a single incision through my belly button. A few minutes later, two nurses came into our private waiting room and told me it was time to say goodbye to my parents and boyfriend and make my way to the operating room. I said my see-ya-laters and excitedly made my way over to the OR. It all felt right.

Me in my stylish hospital garb!

My wonderful parents right before my surgery.

When I got to just outside the operating room I had to put a cloth cap over my hair and then sign a few more papers (I have no idea what any of them said to be honest, but I’m pretty sure I was signing my life away, or at least my left kidney). A few more nurses came out to go over some information one last time, verify a few things, and explain what was about to happen. Then I was led into the room and onto the large operating table. The room was abuzz with countless people – nurses, assistants, doctors, anesthesiologists, and Lord knows who else. Everything happened so quickly from this point on that it never felt quite real. I remember feeling cold when I got onto the table, so the nurses covered me in warm blankets and then inserted my IV. For some reason, though, the moment it all really hit me was when two nurses strapped the lower half of my body down to the table. I wasn’t afraid, or nervous, or panicked, just suddenly acutely aware of what I was about to do. But there was barely any time to think about it by then – among the flurry of nurses and doctors congratulating me on what I was about to do, and telling me that it was a beautiful, wonderful thing, someone told me they were injecting into my IV something that would make me feel very relaxed – and almost instantly I fell into a dreamlike state. Next thing I knew, I was slowly drifting off into la la land and then, nothing…

A few hours, but what felt like a few seconds, later at around 10:30 am, I awoke in the recovery room. My first thought was confusion, but then I quickly remembered where I was and what I had done. I remember two nurses standing over me, one fidgeting with the oxygen tubes in my nose and the other asking me questions I don’t remember answering. Then, blackness again. When I awoke the second time (or what I remember being the second time), there was another nurse standing over me asking me how the pain was. Until that moment, I had felt nothing, but as soon as she mentioned pain, it’s all I felt. It wasn’t a sharp, shooting pain, but a constant soreness and a feeling of extreme bloating. I mumbled this to the nurse and was quickly given more pain meds. As I became more and more aware and drifted in and out of sleep, a nurse explained that I was now hooked up to a drip filled with powerful pain meds and any time I needed I could simply push a button and more meds would be flushed through my IV. That was probably the greatest news I ever could have heard, and I’m fairly certain I drained them of their stock in a matter of hours.

During one of my brief spurts of alertness, my parents and boyfriend were allowed to come in and see me. For some reason still unknown to me (though I blame the anesthesia), I cried when I saw them. It wasn’t from pain, it wasn’t from being afraid, I just cried because, well… because. And it felt damn good. I knew what I had done, and although extremely uncomfortable, the feelings of relief and accomplishment were overwhelming. A couple hours later a few nurses said I was doing well enough to leave the recovery room and so off I was, wheeled to my own private room with a bathroom, a TV, and windows with a few of the East River. Not bad!

Fresh out of recovery and feeling fine (thanks to the pain meds)!

The next few hours I was still in and out of it from the anesthesia, the pain meds, and just the whole morning in general. Since I had barely slept more than a couple hours the night before, my body was craving sleep, and sleep I did! Bless them, my family stayed right by my side the entire time. Bobby read me cards, texts, emails, and Facebook messages I received from my wonderful friends and family, and my parents bent over backwards to make sure I was as comfortable as possible. As I became more and more alert, they told me that Dr. Del Pizzo ordered me on 24-hour bed rest. As it turns out, my left kidney and my spleen were fused together. Although not extremely common, it’s something that is typically found in people who were either in some sort of accident or who played contact sports and suffered a minor trauma to the area. I spent my entire childhood sliding into second base, slamming into people on basketball courts, and getting roughed up during field hockey – not to mention the countless other physical activities I engage in regularly as a highly active individual, so this was no surprise. Dr. Del Pizzo explained that my spleen was encased in scar tissue and my kidney ended up attached to it. Though this will in no way affect my health now or in the future, it did require a little more dissection than usual, so I wasn’t allowed to move all that much.

Normally, being forced to do nothing would be good news to someone just out of surgery. But any kidney donor will tell you that the key to recovery from a laparoscopic procedure is walking. During this procedure, lots and lots of gas is pumped into the abdomen so the surgeons can see the organs more clearly and have more room to work. During the surgery, this gas settles into the abdomen and elsewhere in the body, forming little pockets of air that can be incredibly painful. The only way to ease the pain is to naturally pass the gas, and the only way to do that is to move. Many kidney donors are encouraged to walk within hours of surgery – I was told the opposite. And over the next 24 hours, as gas pockets settled in my chest, my back, my shoulders, my neck, and even my legs, I could do nothing but lay there, on my back, and pump in the pain meds. With a catheter inserted, I couldn’t even use needing to use the bathroom as an excuse to get up. My only real relief was sleep.

My awesome boyfriend right by my side.

By the next morning, I was aching to get up and try to move some of the gas around. Throughout the entire preceding day, strings of nurses and doctors came in to check on me. My incision looked good and everything in my abdomen felt right. My urine levels and blood tests showed a healthy recovery as well. With the pain medication literally at my fingertips, I’d say the worst part was not being able to sleep very long – I was awoken every 3 hours on the dot for a nurse to come in, take my blood pressure, my temperature, and a few more vitals and check my urine levels. I appreciated the efficiency and concern, but deep down, all I wanted was rest.

Finally, at 11 am Wednesday morning, a nurse came in and told me I could attempt to walk around the room and into the hallway. Music to my ears! Until I tried to stand up, that is. It was pretty painful to bend, so I had to use my automatic bed to get myself upright and once I did, all I felt was a stabbing pain in my chest and back so bad it took my breath away. The gas. The nurse told me that gas can be so painful that people have gone to the ER thinking they were having a heart attack. Believe me, I get it. I pushed through, however, and being the competitive person I am, I not only walked into the hallway, but up and back the entire length and then even used the bathroom all by myself (it’s the little things). Exhausted, I got back in bed and went to sleep again, and continued this routine throughout the day until I was pacing the full length of the hallway multiple times all by myself.

Despite my progress, the doctors insisted I stay a second night, mostly due to my late start with walking (because of the 24-hour bed rest). I was anxious to get home, but knew that it was best to be in the hospital as I began to learn which pains where normal and which were not. That night, I finally had solid food and began to feel a bit better as the day wore on.

The next morning, Thursday, March 10th, I was released from the hospital. My family and I decided it would be best if I went to my parents’ house for a few days since my boyfriend had to go back to work and I was still pretty helpless. Although I did want to go home and sleep in my own bed, I wasn’t exactly opposed to having my mom take care of me the way only a mother could! Before I left, my coordinator, Marian, stopped by to let me know that my recipient was still doing well and that her creatinine levels were already at 1.1 (a measure of kidney function – well within the normal range for women – and a sign that the transplant was successful). I was ecstatic and now felt like I could home happy. After a bumpy, slightly agonizing ride, I was back in my parents’ house and on my way to recovery.

The next few days were the roughest. Though my incision didn’t hurt much, the gas pain was constant. It was typically dull, but the slightest movement could randomly send a shooting pain through my body. I forced myself to walk up and down my parents’ street and while the walk itself was hard, the relief I felt afterwards was worth it. My first shower wasn’t the most successful or graceful thing I’d ever done, but it felt good to be squeaky clean. I didn’t eat much, and for the first week or so didn’t have much of an appetite anyway, but even when my appetite returned, it was uncomfortable to eat the amount of food I normally would. One of the most difficult parts, in my opinion, was sleeping and waking up. Sleep was hard because I had to lay on my back and I am a dedicated stomach sleeper. The only comfortable position was sitting up in a cocoon of pillows. Waking up was painful because the gas would settle in my back during the course of the night and when I got up in the morning, it would stir things up in my abdomen and cause some pain and discomfort. But as the days crept forward, the discomfort slowly began to ease.

These pains, problems, and discomforts lasted for about a week. By the second week, I still had some lingering issues – a bit of gas and swelling remained and some muscle soreness in my back (which is normal because your body will instinctively try to protect this new ‘hole’ in your body). The second week I still spent the majority of my time resting, but was much more active than the previous week. And, considering I had a kidney removed, I’d say that’s not too bad! However, I still didn’t feel like myself. I felt tired, worn out, and not up for too much for too long. All normal, but frustrating nonetheless.

Week three I returned to see Dr. Del Pizzo for my follow-up exam. This week was truly my turning point. I began to walk more upright and was slowly regaining energy. Dr. Del Pizzo removed the steri-strips that had been covering the incision and I saw my belly button for the first time since the surgery. It wasn’t the prettiest thing I’d ever seen – it was swollen and still had scabs and irritation – but it was healing well and the scar was barely noticeable. A few more blood tests and a urine test and I was off.

Before leaving the parking garage, however, I spotted Tracy Morgan picking up his car. If you remember (from this post), I saw Tracy in the elevator during my marathon day of testing back in January. I never said anything to him, but I regretted it. Now, here was my chance. I approached him, tapped him on the shoulder, and told him who I was. I told him I heard he had recently received a kidney and that I hoped all was well, and that I was an altruistic kidney donor. He looked at me with such shock and appreciation, hugged me, and thanked me over and over again. He told me, “You don’t run into people like you just everyday. You’re number one in my book.” He even began to cry a little. To see someone directly impacted by kidney disease become so emotional and thankful for donors like me and all the others out there made me realize how truly important donation is. As if I needed it, it was affirmation, once again, that I had done the right thing for me, for others, and something truly special. To make that day even better, I later found out that my tests all came back perfect (creatinine at 1.0 already!), my recipient was doing beautifully, and that my chain had already spanned 6 people – meaning 3 people received kidneys so far due to my one act. Life is good.

Tracy Morgan and me outside NYP - there are still four kidneys between the two of us!

So here I am, four weeks after donating my kidney. To be perfectly honest, although most of the pain was gone by the end of the second week, I still, four weeks later, get tired very easily. I feel much more like myself and aside from a few tweaks of discomfort here and there, I feel pretty damn good (I even returned to light workouts at the gym!). However, the fatigue has had the most lasting hold on me. Other donors warned me about this – that the fatigue can last for months, even – but I didn’t quite realize how noticeable it would be. It gets better and better each day, even though I still have my slightly bad days here and there, but I can certainly see a decrease in energy and stamina. Like everything else, though, that will return, and all in all, this process was pretty easy considering I had an organ removed! And the best part is that someone else, 3 someone elses, actually (!), are walking and living a healthier life today as a result.

My life is by no means perfect. Though I feel great, I’m not completely healed yet and it shows. I’m in the middle of a grueling job hunt and as a result, the plans my boyfriend and I had to move forward with our lives have been put on hold. But this experience has taught me to see the good through the bad. I’ve become much more in touch with my body and have a renewed sense of dedication to my health. The time that I don’t spend at work is now being spent pursuing all the creative ventures that I’ve put on hold for so long, like a children’s book I’ve been mulling over for months. I’m learning who I am, who I want to be, and what I’m capable of. I know I am strong, passionate, and creative, and that I can handle whatever curveball life may throw at me. And most importantly, I’ve come to understand what’s truly important in life – that happiness has nothing to do with things or titles, but with people, with love, and with health. I’ve grown more in this past month than I have in years and I know that at the end of the day, I have a richer life than I ever could have asked for. Everything happens for a reason. Life moves on whether you’re ready or not. And I fully intend to enjoy every minute of this beautiful, crazy, unpredictable ride.

Anything I’ve ever done that ultimately was worthwhile… initially scared me to death.  [Betty Bender]


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