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Running Through It: Shannon + Organ Donation

The day before the transplant; Shannon (in blue) donated part of her liver to Deb (in orange).

[[Today on the Running Through It series, Shannon, a Massachusetts-based #motherrunner, shares how she gave up her running to give another woman life. ]]

Would you voluntarily commit to giving up most of what you love to do for an entire year? Would you do it if you were told it could be the most painful things you would ever endure? Would you do this for just a casual acquaintance?

This is exactly what I chose to do on September 27, 2016 when I became a liver donor for someone in the town I live in.

In January of 2016 I ran the Disney Marathon, my fourth marathon. It ended like the other three had ended, finishing in the 4:40 range. After this I decided I wanted to get serious, so I hired a trainer. My goal was to work my way toward qualifying for the best marathon in the world: the Boston Marathon.

You would have had to live under a rock in our city (Beverly, Massachusetts) to not know about Deb Debski and her campaign to get a new liver. There were news stories, a Facebook page, and fundraisers. A friend had even put up a billboard on her front lawn asking, “Could you be the one?”  She was looking for people to step up to get tested as a donor. Twenty people had gotten tested, but none were a match.

I didn’t give it much thought until I saw another plea from her in early 2016 asking if anyone was even THINKING about calling to get tested, now was the time. The timeframe for her to have a live donor was closing quickly. Soon she would be too sick to get a transplant.

I sat on it for a week. I discussed it with my husband. I knew if I did not call, Deb was going to die. Because, you see, I just knew that I was the one to save Deb’s life. How did I know? I just had this gut feeling. I knew God has chosen me.

In Shannon's world, running is a family affair.

Deb and I weren’t close friends. We were just casual acquaintances who had played softball together for a few years. But she was a mother, a wife, a friend and a human being who needed help, and that’s all I could think about.

The testing to become a liver donor is very extensive. And mostly what I learned was that I was an incredibly healthy 50-year-old woman! The final test—one where they map your liver to see if can be safely separated—was the biggest of all.

Several hours after this test on July 19, I was told I could be the donor.

The first half of 2016 I was training towards running a Boston Marathon qualifying time. After the donation situation became official, the second half of the year of training was focused on being in the best possible shape I could be in when I went into the hospital for the transplant.

On transplant day—September 27, 2016—I was wheeled down to the OR at 5:00 in the morning with my husband. At 8:00 that night, I woke up, full of tubes and monitors, back in my room after a 12-hour surgery. Deb's surgery met with some complications, and it would be about a week before she was out of the woods. By then I was home recovering.

When I arrived home, I was incredibly weak. I remember my husband had to push me up the stairs. So much for all the hard training over the previous 6 months!  I had to sleep propped up, I needed held taking a shower, getting off the toilet and walking down the stairs. I could barely eat. About 10 days post-surgery, I went to meet my running group for coffee. After an hour out, I had to nap the rest of the day.

I remember the progression of activity clearly in the couple of months after. When my husband went back to work, I was not allowed to go out and walk by myself. Luckily, I had so many people jump in to help. To walk my dog (and me!), bring us food, bring me to appointments, and to just come sit with me in case I needed anything.

It’s incredible how generous people are with their time! I tried to get out and walk a couple of times a day. First to the mailbox and back. Then to the neighbors, then halfway down the street and back. Every day just a little further.

When I was cleared to drive, I went to the local Y, where I worked as an instructor, to walk on the treadmill; I just wanted to be social with other people! I started getting up to meet my running group on Saturdays. Some of my friends would sacrifice their workout and walk with me.

In early December I went back to work with my trainer and friend Mironda. She helped me get on a foam roller to stretch, but I couldn’t get back up. She had to use all her strength to get me up from the floor. This is when I really and truly understood how poor my physical condition had become.

Before surgery, I had promised myself and my husband that I would take the recovery slow, and give myself and entire year to get back to pre-surgery shape. I walk/ran the Disney 5k in January 2017 (my husband and I had signed up for Dopey for our 50th), it took me 39 minutes. I could barely move for several days after.

As the year went by my walk/run ratio decreased. In March I was at a 3/3 ratio. In April 4/3. I had a goal race in mind: The Smuttynose Half Marathon on October 1st.

I asked Mironda if this was an attainable goal, and she said yes. I started heart rate training in May, at a 5/1:30 run/walk ratio. I worked out 2x a week with my trainer. If I wanted to do something and wasn’t quite sure I should I would ask her. Her answer was always: “Do you want to do _____, or do you want to run that half marathon?"

Deb + Shannon in a recent picture; both are thriving.

So I didn’t go zip lining with my family, or skiing with my friends over winter break. I didn’t play softball, volleyball or bowl. Instead of running, I was the race mom at a halfmy friends did in May. I stuck to early bedtimes and saying no to outings with friends. I missed a lot of things that year, but I wouldn’t change one single thing.

Because today, Deb is alive and thriving! I see her often, but sometimes she just sends random texts: "so glad to be alive and enjoying this beautiful day!" or just "I love you".  It amazes me that a little piece of me is inside her and is keeping her alive! It is an honor to be her donor, because I know that she is taking full advantage of her second chance.

As for the Smuttynose Half, I still did a run/walk. I enjoyed every single minute of that race; I was running again with my family and friends. I had a goal to PR. I did a sub-two hour half-marathon for the first time in my running career and finished in 1:55:21!

My husband was waiting for me at the finish line where I dissolved into a puddle of tears.

The comeback was complete.

A friendly send-off for Shannon before Boston 2018.

Or so I thought. A month or so later with the help of a friend who also had a liver transplant, I secured a number through the American Liver Foundation to run Boston in 2018. My dream had come true in a roundabout way! As we all know, the conditions this year were horrific, but I finished. No one could see my tears of joy at the finish, because it was torrentially pouring, but they were there.

Have you Run Through It—a challenging situation or stage in life—at some point? We want to hear from you!

Write up your essay (no more than 1,200 words, please), then email it to us. We'll be in touch when we can publish it. Thanks!

13 responses to “Running Through It: Shannon + Organ Donation

  1. Shannon is my liver-giver, my life saver. I am so grateful for her courage and compassion. What an incredible gift!! My life! I have seen both my children accepted to Grad school. I’ve returned to working my part time job and participate in some charity work. Shannon is amazing and I am blessed.

  2. Deb, you are amazing. My husband had liver surgery to remove mets from his stage 4 rectal cancer in April, and I know how hard that must have been for you after watching his recovery! I was a fundraiser for the Liver Foundation at Boston in 2017 – what a great crew! And I’m so glad you got to do it!!! Keep going, thank you for being the gift of life, and best to Shannon.

  3. These are stories that give purpose and meaning to lives that can get overrun with all sorts of mundane stuff. Not just purpose and meaning for the doers lives but for those of us who witness them, too. Thanks so much for giving us the right order for living.

  4. I’m tearing up as I read this – that someone like Shannon exists, and can give so much (literally) of herself, that Deb is taking full advantage of the life she has, and that our goals and dreams so often come true in ways we least expect. Thank you so much for this!

  5. Shannon, you are awe-inspiring and brave! Reading your story confirms my belief that runners are just the most phenomenal people! Really loved reading this today – on Election Day. You radiate hope. Many wonderful wishes and happy miles to you!

  6. I am a donor as well, I donated my right kidney on June 14, 2017 to a family friend and saved his life. I would do it again tomorrow if I had anymore to give. I also thought I was in tip top shape going into the surgery, but the recovery was hard for me. They say going in as a healthy donor your body isn’t sick so you have to adjust to what just did to yourself. The exhaustion was the one thing that really got me and even now almost 18 months later there are still days that I feel exhausted, not tired, exhausted. I never knew the difference until I went through it. It took a full year for me to get back into fully running and strength training but I would give that up in a heartbeat to help someone else live a better life.

  7. I ran through the worst hell a mother runner could imagine. My son was diagnosed with Ewings Sarcoma at age 11. We spent 9 months in chemo, radiation and surgery and many more in the hospital for fever. I would wake early before him and lace up for 3 or 4 miles just to let my brain reset for the hard day ahead. Watching your child suffer is hell on earth. But we did share some good time also, playing video games in the hospital bed, sitting next to each other while I worked (software) and he did virtual school (he loved learning). The nurses assured me that my being gone for 45 minutes for my mental sanity was the best thing I could do for him and myself. He had 7 months of remission but then relapsed January of 2017 when the tumors spread to his lungs and brain just after turning 13. He died in March of 2017. I would have given him my lungs if I could have and never run another step again. I would have given my bone marrow if it would have saved him. I would have cut out my own brain if it would have been possible. Sadly none of this was. The rest of a year was a blur of grief and holding it together for my younger son who also just lost his older brother. I laced up again in 2018 and hope to train for the 2019 Philly marathon while raising money for one of my charities – MakeAWish or Sarcoma Foundation. Maybe for both. I run through my tears almost every day. Nothing will bring him back. But I still find joy and love with my friends, family, running community, and family.

    1. Katherine–Thank you for sharing your story of your son; so glad you had running to help you process the whole situation. Good luck with 2019 Philly Marathon, but no matter what, keep up your running. xoxo

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