by Kristen Hislop
Eleonora Morrell is noted for her athleticism, determination, and enthusiasm. Before each race, be it the Friehofer’s Run for Women or the New York City Marathon, she is famous for her exuberant jump shot giving her the sobriquet of the “jump shot queen.”
She recently faced a dilemma that many would run away from. Her half sister's daughter, Stef Weiss, age 31 had long battled kidney disease and her situation grew worse. Without a new kidney her future was bleak. Stef's Mom posted that her daughter was in need of a kidney transplant. So, what do you think Eleonora did?
Before we tell you, ponder this information.
According to Kidney.org in 2014 on average:
Over 3,000 new patients are added to the kidney waiting list each month.
13 people die each day while waiting for a life-saving kidney transplant.
Every 14 minutes someone is added to the kidney transplant list.
Those numbers are just increasing. Currently 100,000 people are on the waiting list. With over 65% of kidneys coming from the deceased there is a continued campaign to raise awareness about organ donation. Even with those campaigns 3 to 5 years is the average waiting time for a kidney from a deceased donor. Patients with blood type O experience the longest wait of up to ten years. Typically a kidney from a deceased donor last 8 to 12 years, but from a living donor it will function 12 to 20 years.
We see these stories on the news and maybe some of us think - would I? As you might imagine genetics play a role. Siblings have a 25% chance of being an "exact match" for a living donor and a 50% chance of being a "half-match." Donor compatibility is established through blood tests that look for matching blood types and antigens. Only 25% of matches are not biologically related. As with any surgery there are risks and you are giving up an organ. Surgery means a hospital stay (and during COVID times that adds significant stress). It means recovery of 2-4 weeks of very light activity and more like 6+ months to return to what we all consider our normal active lifestyle.
Potential donors go through a screening to assess the following criteria:
Compatible blood type
Healthy weight (Body mass index <35)
Age 18 or older
No chronic illnesses that could be affected by removal of kidney or liver
No uncontrolled high blood pressure
No infectious disease or cancer
No family history of genetic kidney or liver disease
No severe, active psychiatric disorders
No current or recent history of alcohol or substance abuse
No evidence of coercion or payment
Potential donors who pass the initial screening then go through a more thorough evaluation, which typically consists of the following:
A donor education class
Blood and urine tests
A chest x-ray
A psychosocial assessment by a social worker
An ultrasound of the kidney or MRI of the abdomen and liver
An MRA (magnetic resonance angiography) of the abdomen
A cardiac stress test and echocardiogram (age 50+)
For women: a pap smear (if one hasn’t been done in three years) and mammogram (if age 40+)
An oral glucose tolerance test (recommended for BMI over 30 or strong family history of diabetes)
Now for the answer to the question of what Eleonora did!
Almost immediately Eleonora started doing the research. Of her thought process she says, "Just like any race, maybe I'll sign up, maybe I won't. I had to think about it, we had to think about it. Well, since no one else was signing up, I'll try. After months of testing, each one another step towards the start line, I was in. And just like that, I was at the start line/surgery room, nervous and determined to finish what I had started and trained for all this time. There was no medal at the end of this race, but I'm sure I'll have some pretty good scars!"
As you learn more about the transplant process the fears can and most certainly will build. It wasn't until just a few weeks before the surgery that Eleonora started telling people her plans. The tide of support surely boosted her mental game. At the same time she focused on her physical fitness. After an amazing photo on the Verrazzano Bridge she continued the 25 miles to the finish line of the 2021 NYC Marathon in November. Right up until the day before surgery El was working out, eating well and prepping her mind for the journey ahead.
Sim, Eleonora's husband and partner in adventures put up a poignant post on Facebook. In part he said, "some of the last words she spoke to me were "I am really scared, but I know I'll be OK." How was I supposed to respond to that?- the only way I know how...'you'll be fine and when it's over, I'll be here for you'. While I have steadfastly supported her decision, along the way I had some questions of my own. Most of my life I have been paying lip service to the phrase 'her body, her choice,' and now I was in a position to see if, in the moment of truth, I could support her decision. She knows life is precious and also fragile. I took her hand years ago and said '...for better or for worse...' She made her choice, and I know now that when push comes to shove, I must stand behind her choosing life. I have to." Sim drove home from New Jersey avoiding the potholes to keep his precious patient as comfortable as possible. Stef stayed behind for a bit longer stint in the hospital. Her new kidney was functioning well right after the transplant. She is now home recovering and living with a working kidney. Eleonora is following doctors’ orders for a slow return to her active lifestyle - no jump shots yet, but her walks are increasing in length each day.
Eleonora is never one to shrink from a challenge. She has conquered the Dopey Challenge, Ironman 70.3, multiple marathons, mentoring the Freihofer's Training Challenge, and literally hundreds of other runs and triathlons. Each and every one with a smile and an awesome jump shot. Why would this decision be any different? A challenge? She was in. Helping someone else? Even better. But for El the fact that she could help the quality and length of Stef's life was it. A short set back in her training and some physical discomfort during recovery, well she has been there before and come out stronger, so she forged ahead.
On Facebook Eleonora posted, "I know my many races would not be possible without the support, love, and strength of my family (near and far), friends and MY rock - Sim. He is and will always be my biggest cheerleader, hand-holder, shoulder to lean on, and well - so much more.. He has always given me the choice to do what I want to be happy and healthy. This was a pretty big ask - and we did it! On to the next race that life throws at us."
Next time you see Eleonora give her a tender hug. I know those jump shots will be back. I for one am looking forward to seeing it at the Freihofer's Run for Women. Anyone who wants extra inspiration can join the Challenge and be mentored by Eleonora in our new run/walk program.
Postscript from Eleonora:
“I'm feeling great! Still healing. Walking every day, a little more distance and a little more speed. This week I started running short distances, slow easy pace. I'll be back out there, running, swimming, biking, tri-ing, because even with one kidney...I can. I would do it all over again. To know my gift has given my niece a chance to live a healthy life...so she can, is worth any last place finish at any race.”
Kristen Hislop is the Director of the Freihofer's Run for Women and the Clifton Park Freedom Mile. She currently serves as Vice President of USATF Adirondack. In the triathlon world she serves as Secretary on the USAT Triathlon Women's Committee and as a Women for Tri Ambassador. Hislop Coaching offers run, swim, cycling and triathlon coaching to athletes of all abilities and ages. She can be found at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and www.hislopcoaching.com