It was New Year's Eve, and I had just stepped out of the shower. My 'party' clothes were all ready, and my friend's rooftop deck party awaited. I was 30, single, and life was as good as it gets.
Then the phone rang.
A doctor, who I'd never met before, told me to drive immediately to the hospital and give them my name, and he'd meet me there as soon as he could. For the next three minutes as he explained why, I barely heard a word.
Still in shock, waiting in a hospital room, the doctor came in and explained that the kidney biopsy results from my tests two days previous had revealed that I had MPGN-1, a rare autoimmune disorder where your immune system decides it doesn't like your kidneys and it's going to wipe them out. Normally, the disease takes a decade to impact your kidney function. Normally it occurs in kids or people with severe autoimmune disorders such as lupus or HIV. My case was even more rare -- I wasn't a kid, I had no such disorder. And instead of a decade, it had destroyed two thirds of my kidney function in three months.
The next 12 months were a combination of denial, perseverance, and miracles. I was on a regime of 20 pills a day. Chemotherapy. Steroids. Repeat. My diet was heavily restricted to avoid foods that required filtration by kidneys, including bananas -- previously my twice-a-day staple. I lost 10 kilos of muscle which was replaced by 10 kilos of retained water. I started nightly peritoneal dialysis (where you hook yourself up to a giant photocopier-sized machine which pumps liters of sugar water in and out of your body through a surgically implanted catheter in your stomach).
Normally a healthy and generally positive person, I was depressed and less and less mobile. I swam in high school, but I could no longer swim because of the catheter. When I ran, the catheter bled. When I rode by bike, my lungs burned. A friend commented, "Wow, you're out of shape." I generally don't have a temper, but I wanted to punch him in the teeth. But I just didn't even have the energy to swing at him.
My family intervened and pushed me to consider a transplant. I could hardly say the word "transplant", much less imagine the idea that someone else's kidney would be used to keep me alive. After more pushing, I began to do the research. And I consented to get tested to see if I could receive a transplant.
One of the first things my nephrologist told me was that the better shape I was in, the better the surgery would go. The transplant surgeon was excited about having me as a patient "because I was skinny." His assistant told me that the surgeon himself had never met a donut he didn't like.
I was humbled by the 20 friends and relatives who volunteered to be tested to see if they were a match. The first six tested were all a match, with my cousin Diane being the closest match.
The big day of surgery came... three times. The first two were scrapped because of medical procedure mistakes, and my cousin and her entire family had to return home and wait for a new date for surgery. Finally, third time lucky, and I woke up in intensive care. My mum took one look at me and said I looked better than before, even with all the tubes in me and an incision in my stomach.
My second chance at life began.
The first month, walking was all I could do, a little more each day. Then a bit of cycling. Then some hiking. I was going to make the most of this gift. Five months after transplant, my three closest mates and I went on a three day desert hike, packing all of our water. I held my own. It was my first signal that I could be healthy, and happy again.
I began to run, swim, and bike more. My mate Dan suggested I try a triathlon. I told him triathlons were for nutters. I entered one with him anyway.
When I crossed the finish line, Dan had a cheshire grin on his face. "You're hooked!" he laughed, and he was right. I entered more sprint triathlons, graduated to the Olympic distance, and thought that was the peak of my career. Then, a friend shared an article on Shad Ireland, a transplant recipient who had completed an Ironman triathlon -- a 3.8k swim, followed by a 180km bike ride, finished off by a full 42.2k marathon run. My family worried I was going to kill myself either training or competing in it. My nephrologist gave me the green light but questioned my mental stability for even attempting it.
A year later, when I crossed the finish line of Ironman Arizona in the States, my cousin Diane was there at the finish line. Joy, yes. Tears, yes. I smelled awful, yes. I shouted, "Your kidney just finished an Ironman!"
Four years later, Ironman #2 in Busselton, Western Australia, nine months after having broken my leg from running (I had low bone density due to the chemo and steroids 10 years earlier). Even after that setback, I finished in the top third of my age group -- not bad for someone competing on a "borrowed" kidney. Ironman #3 came in Cairns this year, where I struggled heavily but kept a smile on my face, knowing that I wouldn't even be able to attempt the race without Diane's kidney inside me.
When Diane gave me the gift of life, I vowed to do great things, and not to waste the second chance she had given me. That means diet, exercise, sleep -- all the things that contribute to making her gift last as long as possible.
The Australian Transplant games are just around the corner, and I'm excited to participate with so many other organ recipients. You are surrounded by visible evidence of how recipients are taking care of themselves, to maximise their second chance, and to show the world that organ donation doesn't just prolong life, it radically alters the course of life in an incredibly meaningful way.
The best thing transplant recipients can do to honor their donors is to take care of the gift they've been given, by staying healthy, by exercising and keeping fit. New transplant recipients might think that a sedentary lifestyle is better for survival, but it's quite the opposite -- the sooner you can transition to active life full of physical activity and organised sports, the better life can become.
Keep swimming. Keep cycling. Keep running. Make your second chance worth every minute.
The World Transplant Games Federation (WTGF) is in search of the world's most fitsporational organ recipients. During the month of September, 12 people from all corners of the world, including one Aussie, will be selected to be Ambassadors for the Fit For Life! program, which aims to help raise awareness of the importance of maintaining a healthy and active life post-transplant and to inspire other recipients, through their own commitment to fitness and an active post-transplant lifestyle.
The selected Fit for Life! Ambassadors will be invited to Chicago to meet their fellow ambassadors for the first time at the rugby world test match between world-champion New Zealand All Blacks and the Ireland National Rugby Union team, in November.
Ambassador applications are now open and close September 30, 2016.