Goodbye, Dear Left Kidney

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It’s taken me more time than I’d like to admit to figure out how to start this damn thing — whatever this damn thing might be. I’ve been wanting to write about my ‘wellness journey’ for some time and I’ve never known how, or I’ve been too busy, or I felt my story was already being told by someone else, or I thought I wasn’t there yet — fit enough, ‘well’ enough, zen enough, whatever — and so how could I write about it? But then I got The News. And everything that I didn’t even know I’d been working on for the last few years seemed to make perfect sense. I was in the right place, the right shape, the right headspace at the right time, and it was all happening (Almost Famous, anyone?). And I want to tell my story about not being perfectly healthy, not always making the best choices, but about my Regular Wellness. And…it’s a beautiful day to start.

So let me back up a little bit. Hi, I’m Jessica. And in 28 days, I’m giving my left kidney away. To my big brother Johnny. (That’s The News.) And I’m feeling..just about every feeling you might imagine. Excitement. Anxiety. Joy. Luck. Fear. Apprehension. Giddiness. Denial. But somehow, mostly, I’m so excited to navigate this new challenge, for a few different reasons.

The biggest and best reason is because I get to give my brother the best gift he could ask for — and I’ve given him some pretty sweet usually Phish themed gifts in my 26 years on this planet. I get to give him a second lease on life. I will be able to honestly say there is nothing more I could have done to help save his life and his health. He’ll get to live a little freer and hopefully much longer. And that feels pretty good (though I’m not sure how I’ll be able to top this come Christmas).

Of course, if it weren’t for Johnny, I probably wouldn’t be giving a kidney away. But this new challenge excites me because I have the privilege to be healthy enough to take an organ OUT OF MY BODY. And just give it to someone else who needs it more. This, my (most likely imaginary) internet readers, is mind blowing. For a multitude of reasons. First of all, modern science is ridiculous. A bunch of science nerds (aka doctors) are going to cut me open, pump me full of gas, cut out my kidney, and literally walk it down the hallway and hand it to other science nerds who will then pop it inside my brother. And I’m gonna (eventually) feel just fine. And my brother is going to feel what it feels like to have normal kidney functions for the first time in who knows how long. He won’t feel tired all day, or nauseous, or have to do dialysis. And this kind of stuff happens ALL THE TIME. In 2014, over 5500 people received a kidney from a living donor. How cool is that?

To be honest, if Johnny had needed a kidney two years ago, I don’t think I would have been healthy enough to give him mine. I don’t have much insight on my blood pressure or kidney function or any of the other things that have to be in good working order to give a kidney away, but I do know how I felt. In 2015, I weighed more than I ever had in my whole life. I was two years out of college, having moved home from Chicago for a great job in Cleveland, feeling a little lost and a little bored, probably similar to how lots of twenty-somethings feel right out of college. That great job had me sitting for most of my day, and I had been spoiled for most of my life by my decent metabolism and my active lifestyle. I grew up playing tons of sports and despite 3 torn ACLs between the ages of 13 and 17, I was in great shape all throughout high school. And in college in Chicago, I was too broke to overeat and I didn’t own a car so I walked or biked everywhere. And suddenly, just like that, I was 24 and overweight-borderline-moderately-obese (according to that bullshit BMI scale) and realizing that I actively needed to WORK on my health.

And so for New Year’s going into 2015, I created a resolution in the form of a mantra: The Year of Self Love. I wasn’t sure what it meant when I started, but I liked the way it sounded. I’ve heard time and time again that you can’t love others until you really love yourself, and I wanted to be able to love my mom, my family, my boyfriend, my friends in the best way I could. So I had to start with myself. The Year of Self Love manifested in a bunch of different ways. I started going to yoga semi-regularly. I took advantage of some of the great perks I am fortunate enough to have at my job, like free in house spin classes and gym facilities. I started cooking for myself and trying new recipes. I was focusing on my mental health but was lucky enough to realize early on that the food I ate and the exercise I did (and the sleep I got) were directly related to how I felt mentally. It was all wrapped up together. I was focusing on falling in love with myself by giving myself everything I needed to feel physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually good. And lucky for me, most of my changes have stuck.

I think a lot of that had to do with me spending a year focusing on loving myself and rarely ever stepping on a scale. I wasn’t focused on a number or a pant size (though it does always feel good to feel comfy in your jeans). Eventually, though, that number came in to play. I could (and still can) stand to lose some weight. I have a love/love relationship with food that can wreak havoc on my weight, and I need to practice healthier, more balanced choices, now more than ever, since I’m about to be living on one kidney for the next 50+ years of my life. But mostly, weight is just another way to measure progress, whether it be weight loss, gain, or maintaining, depending on my specific goals.

Fast forward to April 2017, and I’m down about 10% of my body weight. I workout five to six days a week and I LOVE IT — though the folks I workout with might beg to differ based on my mean mug and matching comments during workouts. (If I haven’t said “this is f*cking stupid” at least once during a workout, the workout wasn’t hard enough.) I love cooking and trying new foods and being more mindful about how what we eat affects how we look and feel. I’m not perfect by any means, but I’m shooting for balance in my diet, and generally in my life. I don’t meal plan every week, sometimes I eat Taco Bell (sober), and I have a soft spot for hot pretzels covered in beer cheese, but I balance it out by being obsessed with water and kombucha and being totally jazzed about trying a new healthy recipe for lunch or seeing what that whole raw vegan thing is about. I box, spin, run (begrudgingly, mostly when being chased), and weight train. I want to be able to do a pull up by the end of the year (those things are hard). I look at Crossfitters and DON’T think they’re crazy. I want to do a triathlon one day. And I’m healthy enough to give a kidney away.

If that is not validation for two years of steady, incremental change, I’m not sure what is. But I am still in the middle of this weird, wonderful journey, and I have a yuuuuge hurdle to work through now. It’s a little bit ironic. I find out I’m healthy enough to give a kidney away, which is no easy feat. But once I give it away, I am going to be tired, weak, unable to life ten pounds, unable to workout. It’s an oddly satisfying oxymoron. The testing for kidney donation is rigorous. First there was a round of blood tests to see if I was a match for Johnny. Once they confirmed I was (a perfect 6/6 for my perfectionist self), I came in for two full days of follow up tests that included more blood tests, an EKG, a CT scan, GFR tests, 24 hour urine analysis..the Cleveland Clinic ain’t playing around with my health, which I totally appreciate. But I passed every test. I was in the normal healthy range for everything. They called and basically said “Congratulations on your health!! Next step, we take your kidney. And it’s gonna hurt. And you’re not gonna be able to work out for a long time. And you’re gonna feel like shit for awhile. Oh and PS, this hasn’t happened at the Clinic but we have to say it…you could die, because surgery.” Oh, hoorah.

And so that’s where I am now. I’m grappling with the fear I have that all of my progress is going to halt while at the same time marvelling at the beautiful set of circumstances that allowed me to arrive here, healthy, happy, surrounded by friends, family, coworkers and bosses who are here to support me, excited to rip an organ out of my body. Honestly, who have I become? I’m thankful for the waves of the universe that pushed me toward my wellness journey many moons ago. I’m nervous that sitting on my butt for six weeks, unable to lift more than ten pounds, is gonna derail my fitness goals. And lend itself to eating a package of Oreos in one sitting. (Have you tried freezing Oreos? My cashier at Heinen’s recommended it and it’s a game changer…But only eat one or two at a time. That’s that balance I was talking about.)

And that’s why I’m writing about it. Because I want to (read: need to) keep myself accountable. Because this has been a long time coming. Because maybe someone cares about my journey.

So join me, if you want. Whether you know me or my brother (or more likely, my mom), are interested in what being a living donor is like (hey, me too! Let’s learn together), or are just a regular person like me interested in wellness, my story might be one you’d like to read. I’m not exactly sure what this will look like, but you can probably expect stories about my wellness goals totally separate from my kidney journey; vent sessions about how awful abdomen incisions are; recipe attempts (both successes and failures); horror stories from the doctor’s office (did I mention I am REALLY BAD at getting blood drawn?); posts about my favorite kombucha flavors (GTS Synergy FTW!); streams of consciousness when I’m stuck on my butt reeling in pain and having phantom left kidney pains and who knows what else. Mostly, I will share my attempt at balancing kidney donation recovery with my regular old wellness goals.

Thanks for tuning in to this imperfect start to something beautiful. You gotta start somewhere.

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