Written by Mike Koetting, Living Kidney Donor
Many people have asked why I chose to be a living donor; to donate a kidney to a stranger I’ve never met. I explain it like this.
Photo: Mike on the night of surgery
Imagine you have a lottery ticket in your pocket. It is a winning lottery ticket with a jackpot that is so valuable it is literally priceless, but only if you give it away to someone. The odds are very, very small that you would ever be able to use the lottery ticket yourself or even give it to someone you know. So what would you do? Would you keep the winning lottery ticket in your pocket your entire life, literally taking it to the grave? Or would you give it to a stranger and in doing so, dramatically change and perhaps even save their life?
Why? Because It's the Greatest Gift You Can Give
I really fell in love with the idea of the Mayo Clinic, which has one of the largest living-donor transplant programs in the United States, calling someone out of the blue 4 weeks before Christmas and telling them that a complete stranger from Minnesota was giving them a winning lottery ticket. I like to imagine what it must have felt like to get that call. For me it felt a lot like when you find the perfect gift for your child or wife and can hardly wait to give it to them. That’s what kept me smiling as they wheeled me into the operating room and why I’m still smiling about it today.
Of course I’ve also registered to be an organ donor in event of my death, but I suppose I’m a bit selfish in that I wanted to know the joy of saving someone else’s life while I’m still alive.
Life After Transplant
A lot of people wonder what it's like for a living donor, post transplant. My research and conversations with the Mayo Clinic physicians confirmed that I shouldn’t expect any significant changes to my health or lifestyle after donating. My day-to-day life is pretty much the same as it was before my surgery. It would be unwise to play high-contact sports like football, boxing, ultimate fighting etc. but my normal lifestyle and performance in running and triathlons hasn't been, and shouldn’t be, impacted by my living donation. I've also been advised to avoid ibuprofen, because ibuprofen is processed by the kidneys, and use Tylenol, which is processed by the liver, instead. Overall, life is great!
A study of 80,000 live kidney donors found that, "Long term risk of death was no higher for live donors than for age- and comorbidity-matched NHANES III participants for all patients and also stratified by age, sex, and race." It’s true that if I ever develop kidney disease I’ll likely be worse off than if I hadn’t donated. I may also be at risk if I get cancer as some chemotherapy treatments degrade kidney function. But the testing at Mayo confirmed that I’m in excellent health and as a living donor, if I should ever need a kidney I will receive additional ‘points’ on the waiting list.
But let’s suppose that donating a kidney does shorten my life. Let’s assume I die when I’m 75 instead of 80. Dying 5 years prematurely would certainly be a bummer, but I’ll have the satisfaction of having saved and/or significantly extended and improved the life of a 47 year old woman. The certainty of changing someone else’s life in exchange for the small chance that my old age might be cut a few years short seems like a worthy trade to me.
The good news is that, as expected, my recovery has been quick and uneventful. I left the Mayo Clinic the day after surgery, ran a 5K 17 days later, and a half-marathon less than six weeks later. You should know that I am an experienced endurance athlete, having completed over 25 marathons and 6 Ironman triathlons, but I think the speed and ease of my recovery should provide reassurance and encouragement to anyone else considering a living donation.
Photo: Mike running the Securian Half Marathon, post transplant
Making an altruistic donation is a bit like child adoption – the Mayo Clinic will only exchange contact information if after six months both the donor and recipient are willing. I’m hopeful that someday I will be able to meet my recipient, but even if I don’t I’m happy to have given my winning lottery ticket to someone else.
Mike Koetting is a 47 year old husband, father, athlete and senior executive in the corporate travel industry living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On December 15, 2014 Mike made an altruistic (anonymous, non-directed) kidney donation at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. You can follow his personal blog here.
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