Today, I was honored and humbled to be the host, and one of the speakers, for the 14th Annual Flag Raising Ceremony to honor organ, eye and tissue donors, put together by UC Health and LifeCenter.
As people who know me know, I’ve always been terrified of public speaking. It used to be one of the biggest anxiety-inducing activities I could imagine doing. I quite literally never thought I could be a person who gives speeches. Yet, today, I was able to not only give that speech, but host the entire proceedings. I gave a speech last September for the local Suicide Prevention Coalition, but a part of me still wondered if I could do it again. Was that some fluke?
My progress in becoming someone who can survive a public speaking engagement has only been possible due to seeking mental health help through antidepressants and therapy. When I was first asked to do this after I donated in 2019, and before the pandemic canceled the event in 2020, I could not have done that speech. I was not ready. I was not mentally equipped yet with the tools to succeed. Admittedly, I was secretly glad the pandemic canceled it, so I didn’t have to speak. But now, I will always be ready to be an advocate for living organ donation.
And today was even more special than the September speech because this time, my family was there watching, including a surprise appearance by my twin, and not pictured here, my best friend.
Something that stood out to me from the other speakers: The impact donation can have is more far-reaching than I think people realize. Being a deceased donor (or even a living donor) has ripple effects beyond just the initial recipient. If you’re not a registered donor, if something should happen to you, please consider registering today at lifepassiton.org. Even if you don’t think you’re a suitable candidate for deceased donation, still register! You never know!
I’d like to share my full speech below. If I find video of it, I will update this post. I should note, since I was the host, I had to introduce the overall event, so that’s why I ended up adding in the opening paragraph to my speech to make for a better segue from that intro to my own intro. I’m not sure how long it took me to speak. When I practiced, I was anywhere from eight minutes to a little more than nine minutes.
I want to share my own kidney donation story, which I could do quickly by just lifting up my shirt and showing you all my scar, but I don’t think anyone wants to see that.
In fall 2012, I went skydiving for the first time, which coincidentally, was the first time I ever flew in a plane. It was a tandem jump, and if you look back at the photo of my face as my gray-bearded instructor scooted me to the edge of the open door of the plane, and I peered over into seeming oblivion, I was terrified. It wasn’t just the wind pressure putting a, “Oh crap!” look on my face. Then we jumped. After the free fall, and he pulled the ripcord on the parachute, we floated above our beautiful Earth. It was the most peaceful, serene feeling I ever had.
But years later, that experience took on a surreal quality: Did I actually do that? A kid who literally got out of line for the Drop Zone at Kings Island — that kid went skydiving? So, in fall 2020, I did it again, and the jump was from 14,000 feet instead of 10,000. To prove to myself I could, I guess. This time, when you see a photo of my face as I wait at the opening of the plane, I have a gleeful smile. I was ready. To quote Frank Costanza, serenity now!
Donating a kidney has taken on a surreal quality in that way. While it’s not jumping out of a plane, it was major surgery that I decided to do on a whim in March 2018. That’s sort of how I navigate through life: whimsically, and then once I get my head oriented toward something, I become fixated on following through.
At that point, I was a 27-year-old, and read Dylan Matthews of Vox recount his experience donating a kidney while I was aimlessly scrolling Twitter one day. At the time he donated, he was a year younger than me. That’s when it clicked in my head: If he can do it, I can do it. As he said in his article, “It’s awful to need a kidney, and it’s really not that hard to give one.” I was healthy, and willing. That’s the overlapping nexus to make living donation possible.
It shouldn’t seem that simple, right? But I’m standing here today, during National Donate Life Month, no less, as a living representation of just how easy it is to decide to become a donor. To donate life. To choose life.
I’m ashamed to admit that I did procrastinate, as I am also inclined to do, on the process. Not because I had second thoughts about donating, but as my family and friends standing here today will readily attest to, I procrastinate about everything, big and small.
But to procrastinate another year was no small thing. Almost 108,000 people are waiting for that chance for a healthy life, and some have been waiting five to 10 years. We all can relate to the feeling of hating to wait on something or someone, but imagine waiting for your chance to live healthy again, all the while navigating living unwell. About 5,000 people die every year waiting, and another 5,000 are taken off of the list because they are no longer healthy enough to be a recipient.
There simply are not enough deceased donors to make up the gap. We are fortunate that deceased donations have grown 34.7 percent over the last five years to nearly 14,000 in 2021, but it is not enough. We need, and those on the list need, living donors to step up. Again, we are fortunate that living donations also increased year-over-year to 6,500 in 2021, but we can do better than that, right?
And again, I’m a living testament that living donation is possible, and in fact, my lifetime chances now of kidney failure are better than the general, non-donating public: less than one percent versus 3.2 percent.
But I can fill up the next 10 minutes talking about the statistics. If those damning statistics were more convincing, we wouldn’t be talking about the gaps. That’s why I’m here. That’s we all are here. To tell you that you can do this, too. That it is possible. That it is doable. Because donating is an action. It is doing. As my dad would say in shorthand, “Nike.”
You have to have a commitment, both in practical terms and in belief, to do this.
So, once I went through the process a second time to regain my eligibility in the summer and fall of 2019, I was ready for the surgery in December of that year, 12 days before Christmas. I intentionally sought out that date as a Christmas gift to my anonymous recipient.
People ask me about that, too. Why not wait and donate to a family member, if they ever need one? Why a stranger? Because I think the 108,000 people on the waiting list are doing enough waiting for all of us. They need it now, not hypothetically in the future. And anyway, the National Kidney Registry has a voucher program, so since I donated altruistically, I can use a family voucher in the future, if a family member should ever need a kidney.
These kidney people really think of everything, don’t they? All you have to do is show up with your pee jug, take a few tests, and then get the surgery.
On the morning of the surgery, I don’t think I was scared in the same way I was scared to jump out of that plane in 2012. Because rather than seeking a hedonistic adrenaline rush, what I was doing superseded myself.
The calculation was always simple: Whoever they are, they need this kidney more than I do. That’s it. It wasn’t about hoping for some boomerang good karma, or a pat on the back, or anything like that. They needed it, so here you go. As it turned out, the donation was considered a “more than perfect” match.
That we were such a compatible match, and that two plus years out, they are healthy, is all I know about who I donated to. That’s enough. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to know.
A huge part of why my recovery went so smoothly is because I was handled by the best at UC, and I’m not saying that just because I’m standing here on their West Chester campus. They know what they’re doing. I was one of 59 living donor transplants they did in 2019; overall, they did 178 kidney transplants. Along with 133 liver transplants, 2019 was a record year for UC.
The entire team in the process was great, from those who took my blood and urine samples, to Tina Stanley and her team at the Medical Center, including the psychologist and social worker who took care of me; to everyone in the Transplant Program, as well as my easy-going anesthesiologist for keeping me asleep, and Dr. Sunshine, who checked in with me in the months, and years, after my donation. Oh, and she was the one who gave me the go-ahead to skydive the second time with one less kidney. And of course, Dr. Latifa Silski, the best doctor I’ve ever had. She was funny, personable, and can put anyone at ease. When she came into the room, I knew everything would be okay.
But I’m not going to sugarcoat it; the first eight or nine days after surgery sucked. Doable, but sucky, with some pain and discomfort stemming from stomach muscle soreness and my organs reconfiguring their positioning. Even so, a mere two days after surgery, I walked my dog a little more than half a mile around my neighborhood. On day six, I drove to work because I didn’t want to miss my coworkers ahead of the Christmas break.
By day 10, and let’s just pause on that for a second — only 10 days after major surgery to remove one of my organs! — I was fully myself again.
I know I said I was done with statistics, and everyone will be different, but we’re talking about a few weeks of commitment to the process, surgery, and about 10 or so days of recovery. To save someone’s life! It is doable.
That’s why, now, as I stand here, 861 days out from surgery, donation has taken on that skydiving-like surreal feeling. Did I really do that? A kid who used to be scared of needles — that kid donated a kidney? For the most part, my only reminders that I did it is the scar a few inches under my belly button, and the greater frequency for going to the bathroom I now have.
Now, obviously, I can’t donate a kidney again like I went skydiving again to prove to myself I did the thing — that it is more than some abstract, surreal memory, but what I can do is to continue to be an advocate for donation. To encourage anyone here to be a gap-filler, a life-saver.
And if that seems too daunting, then you can be a deceased donor, and for more than just kidneys, but other organs, tissues, and eyes. That’s even less of a commitment, because LifeCenter makes it super easy, so easy that you don’t even have to make a visit to the BMV. Simply go to their website at lifepassiton.org, and click on the “register to save lives” button at the top. You could do it standing here today, and be registered before the ceremony finishes.
Even if you think you wouldn’t be a suitable candidate, there is no downside to signing up to be an organ, tissue and eye donor after death, and all the upside in the world for those waiting, if you turn out to be suitable.
Choose life today. Donate life today. It has all the serenity of jumping out of a plane without any of the “jumping out of a plane” part.
Thank you for listening to my story. I’m humbled to be included here today.