As an endurance athlete who has completed six Ironman triathlons and more than two dozen marathons, Michael Koetting does not fear physical challenges. So when he learned he could use his good health to help a stranger in need, he never hesitated.
In December 2014, Michael, 47, of Orono, Minnesota, donated one of his kidneys to an anonymous recipient. Mere months later, he is back on the road, clocking competitive times in the sports he loves. His experience shows that dedicated athletes can give the gift of life through organ donation without jeopardizing their fitness.
Many living donors choose to give an organ directly to a loved one or friend in need. But people can also donate to strangers through anonymous living donation, also known as good Samaritan, non-directed or altruistic donation. More than 122,000 people nationwide are waiting for a lifesaving organ transplant, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, a public-private partnership to increase the number of and access to transplants. Living donors can spare patients awaiting kidney, liver and bone marrow transplant a lengthy and uncertain wait for an organ from a deceased donor.
Michael became interested in anonymous living donation after hearing a story on the radio show "This American Life" about a woman who donated a kidney to a stranger. "I had always heard you only need one kidney," says Michael, who has a second cousin who received a kidney transplant. Since living donors must be generally healthy and free of any major diseases, Koetting's excellent physical condition made donating "seem logical," in his words.
"I was really eager to make the donation before the holidays. It would make it extra special for someone to receive that gift unexpectedly." - Michael Koetting
The second easy decision was coming to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, according to Michael. “I decided this was something I wanted to pursue, and I wanted to have the best possible health care. Mayo is at the top,” he says. Since 1963, surgeons at Mayo Clinic Transplant Center in Rochester have performed nearly 3,000 living-donor kidney transplants.
In November 2014, Koetting was evaluated and approved as a donor. The surgery took place on Dec. 15. "I was really eager to make the donation before the holidays," he says. "It would make it extra special for someone to receive that gift unexpectedly."
The procedure went smoothly, and Michael recovered so quickly that he was back at work the next week. On New Year’s Day, with the approval of his doctors at Mayo, he laced up his running shoes and completed a 5K race.
Seven months and many miles later, Michael is feeling as fit as ever. His day-to-day life is "completely back to normal," he says, and in June, he ran his fastest marathon in three years, finishing in 3 hours and 41 minutes. Now, he is training for his seventh Ironman competition.
Michael says his story testifies to the fact that athletes can become organ donors with minimal impact on their fitness. "As a runner or an athlete, you’ve been blessed with good health, and you work hard to maintain that good health," he says. "You have the opportunity to change someone’s life, to potentially save someone’s life, at little risk to yourself."
Though he has not met the recipient of his kidney, Michael says he believes in the power of anonymous organ donation to transform lives, just as fitness has changed his.
"I would like to think that with this gift, someone can pursue their passion now," he says. "I have this hope that the person who received my kidney might be crossing a finish line, too."