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A Friend Worth Waking Up For: Learning To Run Again After Donating My Kidney

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Most weekday mornings, I am awake before my alarm goes off at 4 a.m. Sometimes I reach in the dark for the running clothes that I have left in a stack on my dresser; other times I put them on before bed to afford me a few extra minutes under warm covers.

When I slip out of the house to meet my running buddy 15 minutes later, it is quiet and dark -- so dark that it could be the middle of the night.

People ask me why I run so early in the morning. There are plenty of stock answers that I usually toss out: I have no other time, with work and kids’ schedules; I like to get my exercise out of the way early; it’s the only time my friend can go. The honest reason, though, is something like this: Running in the dark helped me regain my physical confidence at a time when I needed it most.

When I responded to Mary’s post on a local Facebook group three years ago, she was looking for an early morning running partner and we were strangers. She had just finished a marathon, whereas I had been sidelined for months. Still recovering from kidney donation surgery, I had a litany of ailments: phantom pain on my left side, lingering post-surgical night sweats, a distended abdomen from internal swelling and a profound sense of fragility, a feeling that I could break with any impact.

I took great efforts to keep my recovery under wraps, because I worried that I would make the recipient of my kidney feel bad. After all, it was he — my stepfather — who had posed the question to the chief of transplant services at Brigham and Women’s Hospital: “She’ll still be able to run after this, right?”

And it was my stepfather who had cheered me on in my first race at age 7, when I was motivated by the Nike swoosh T-shirts given to finishers. I ran in high school, in college, through two pregnancies (and after two C-sections) — and my stepfather was always my biggest cheerleader. Now, I wasn’t motivated by a T-shirt, but by a desire to get back to normal.

"When I first started running in the dark, I liked it because no one could see me. I could grimace and shift my gait without worrying about how I looked to the world."

As the weeks and months passed, I struggled to resume regular activities with verve, and the doubts got louder and more persistent. Though I knew better, I spent many nights huddled over my laptop in bed Googling live kidney donor outcomes.

I had done plenty of searches before donation. At that time, my search strings were straightforward: "kidney disease," "kidney transplant surgery," "live kidney donation," "high creatinine," and so on. Eventually they advanced to more complex and philosophical searches: “Will I die after donating a kidney?” “Do patients who donate a kidney die early?” “What are kidney donation complications?” “Can kidney donors run long distances?” More importantly, could I?

Many of the web boards for living donors told gruesome tales of post-donation complications. Pain that lasted for years. Decreased mobility. Loss of employment. Chronic fatigue. To be fair, there were also positive stories — but I fixated on the others.

“Those are just outliers,” said my husband. “You will be fine, you just need to build up your confidence again.” It helped that his work is in the area of health care quality, and at that time it was specifically in the area of surgical outcomes. I will be fine, I repeated, willing it so. But first, I needed to start running again.

Mary’s post said that she was looking for someone willing to run early — as in 4 or 4:15 a.m. On impulse, I wrote a reply. “I am an early bird too — would love to chat about this.” She replied right away.

I was nervous. We met one afternoon to connect in person, and scheduled our first run for the following Monday. For our first outing, we planned a short loop — four miles — a route that I had done dozens of times. This time, however, my breathing was labored and my legs were wobbly. I stopped midway through when I felt bile in my throat. “You go on without me,” I waved. “Maybe I’m not ready.”

“Let’s just walk the rest,” she said. I was embarrassed. But if she thought anything of it, she didn’t say. Later that day she texted me to schedule another run. And the next time, I ran the whole route. I was slow and halting, but I finished.

"This spring, nearly four years post-donation, I have a full roster of long-distance races on the docket."

When I first started running in the dark, I liked it because no one could see me. I could grimace and shift my gait without worrying about how I looked to the world. I could focus on the crunch of my footfalls on the newly paved roads. And perhaps most unexpectedly, as I logged months and miles, I gained not only a running buddy, but also a friendship that has carried me through.

As my confidence and strength grew, I started running races again. A 5K or 10K here. Longer and faster training runs. Sprints around the local track. When I crossed the finish line of my first half marathon a year after I met Mary, I cried. After that came another half, and then a 20-miler. This spring, nearly four years post-donation, I have a full roster of long-distance races on the docket.

Could one run again after kidney donation? I could.

This Thanksgiving, I was traveling with my family and ran a local “Turkey Trot” 5K. After the race, I texted my stepfather with a photo of my results: “Placed in my age group.” He wrote back right away. “Wow! Now relax and enjoy family and food. We have a lot to be thankful for. I am thankful for you.”

And me, I am thankful for Mary. I’ve never told her this, so I’m telling her now: Mary, thank you for being not just a running buddy, but a friend worth waking up for.

Related:

Amy Carleton Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Amy Carleton holds a Ph.D. in English Literature and is a lecturer in MIT's Comparative Media Studies division. She blogs at bookminded.wordpress.com.

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