Co-founder of Richmond advertising firm back on running course after donating kidney
Susan Dubuque almost let her ideas of age-appropriate behavior stop her from undertaking two of the biggest challenges of her life.
Years ago, after running a half marathon, she stood on the sidelines and watched the full marathoners finish. There were people running who looked older than her 54 years at the time. Could she go the full distance?
More recently while working on an advertising and marketing project on organ donation for the Virginia Commonwealth University Hume-Lee Transplant Center, she interviewed people who had donated organs to strangers and people who received donor organs.
Their stories inspired and deeply touched her. Dubuque wondered if she, in
her 60s, could be a donor?
The answer turned out to be yes to both questions.
Dubuque, co-founder of the local advertising firm NDP, has run 10 full marathons and on Saturday will run the Markel Richmond Half Marathon.
Ordinarily she would be running the full Anthem Richmond Marathon again this year, but in July she donated a kidney to a stranger in what’s called a nondirected organ donation. She did not have a specific recipient in mind but asked that her kidney go to whomever needed it the most.
“Quite honestly, I assumed I was too old to donate because I had been unceremoniously thrown off the bone marrow registry when I turned 60. I thought if my bone marrow expired surely my kidneys did, too,” Dubuque said with a laugh.
But as she looked more into it, she discovered that people in their 70s were organ donors.
“I think I’m 65, I’m not too old. So February 1, I called VCU and said I would like to see about being an organ donor. For months I went through screening,” Dubuque said.
The screening process was physical and psychological.
She was screened for every type of cancer, had numerous blood and urine tests, EKG, echocardiogram, chest X-rays, stress test and a nuclear scan. She underwent physical exams by a kidney specialist and a surgeon, was interviewed by two social workers, screened by a dietitian, and had a psychological evaluation.
One very sobering question she was asked was, “Do you know you could die?”
“I finally got approved June 16. I got the final word I had passed all the tests. I immediately asked to schedule the surgery. So I scheduled it for July 10,” Dubuque said.
The transplant program looked for a patient who matched her. Initially a 65-year-old man was identified, but his medical situation changed. On June 28, a 53-year-old woman was identified as a possible recipient.
By hospital and transplant policy, that is all the information Dubuque was told about the recipient. Later, if donor and recipient both agree, they could arrange to meet.
As soon as she was approved to be a donor, Dubuque began to share her story in blog posts.
“I brought my friends along with me . ... I had prayer warriors. I had friends that were right there with me through this whole process. I had friends from high school, college, grad school, work, clients ... friends from all walks of my life engaged with this. And they were there with me, and that really made it very special,” she said.
They asked her some of the same questions the screeners had. Why would you donate a kidney to someone you don’t know? What happens if the recipient does not take care of the kidney? What happens if the transplant fails? What happens if the recipient dies?
“I processed that by thinking of it like the
Angel Tree. You go to the Angel Tree and you pick an angel and you buy a gift and you give it up. You hand it over and you have done what you can do and beyond that you have no control. You don’t get to say, ‘Now you take care of that doll.’ ... You’ve given a gift, and it has to be with no strings,” she said.
Also on her mind were the good Samaritan donors whose stories initially inspired her — a Colonial Heights husband and wife, both teachers, who both gave kidneys to strangers.
“They wanted to educate their children, they wanted to educate their students, they wanted to role model. I think their values are something I really would aspire to,” Dubuque said.
The surgery at VCU Medical Center was July 11 and was uneventful.
“I went into the hospital on Tuesday. It’s done laparascopically with a robot. I got operated on in the morning. Thursday I came home. Friday I was off pain meds other than a little Tylenol. Saturday I was walking through the neighborhood and picking weeds in the yard,” she said.
Everything was going smoothly until it wasn’t.
“I had a complication. No one told my GI tract to wake up, and I ended up back in the hospital for a day,” Dubuque said.
Dubuque said she remembered lying in the hospital bed in pain and praying that she did not wake up in the morning with regrets. That’s when she heard the sound of the medical transport helicopter flying above the hospital about to land on the rooftop helipad.
One of the transplant nurses had told Dubuque there was a patient that she was calling that night to come in the next morning.
“I knew that that helicopter probably meant there was a kidney landing and it was a deceased donor. It would not have been a living donor. That did it. If all I have to do is put up with gut pain for a few days and a little bit of embarrassment and inconvenience and nobody had to die ... I do not regret it. I woke up in the morning and I was good to go,” Dubuque said.
Two weeks and two days after the surgery, she went in for a follow-up visit. She was doing fine and was given the OK to resume running, slowly.
“Which is the only way I can run,” Dubuque said, laughing.
She started training for the half marathon that weekend. Friends who ran the full Anthem Richmond Marathon with her last year are running the half marathon with her this year.
One person who will be there in spirit cheering her on is Julie Graham, the person who received Dubuque’s kidney.
Graham, 53, lives in Roanoke Rapids, N.C. She had been on dialysis for five years. Twice a relative had offered to donate a kidney then got scared and backed out.
“I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it. Your heart is in the right place,’” Graham said.
Four times Graham was put on standby and told a kidney might become available.
“The first two times they called me back before I left home. The other times I got there and the kidney would not work out,” Graham said.
The fifth call, in July, was from a live donor. It was Dubuque’s kidney.
That call came on a Saturday with instructions to report to the hospital the following Monday.
“It’s just amazing she went through with it,” Graham said of Dubuque.
“Everything has changed. I’m not having to run in and hook up to the machine. I have my freedom back,” Graham said.
Graham and Dubuque met only recently after both agreed that it was OK to share their information with each other.
“It was overwhelming. We just embraced and started talking between the tears,” Graham said.
Susan Dubuque(right) donated akidney in July without a recipient in mind. Julie Graham ofRoanoke Rapids, N.C., received theorgan.
Susan Dubuque donated a kidney in July so it would go to whomever needed it most. She spoke about her experience at the annual Central Virginia Kidney Walk in western Henrico County last month. Dubuque tossed foam kidneys to the crowd during her talk.