Jamestown woman donates kidney to her husband

JAMESTOWN – It’s a brilliantly sunny, Saturday morning in mid-October, the cloudless sky is a royal blue and, in the distance, Don Hill, a 40-year-old artist from Jamestown’s northside, can just about make out the finish line of the Lucy Town 5-kilometer road race.

As he starts to cross the Third Street Bridge, the familiar songs on his iPod playlist – “Dancing With Myself” by The Donnas, Will Smith’s “Getting Jiggy Wit It” and “Blessed Be Your Name” by the Newsboys – are making him pump his legs harder and harder.

“My brain,” he would say weeks later, “said, ‘Go, go.'”

But not before he executes his preconceived plan. After taking one final swig of water, Don rears back and fires the empty plastic bottle as far as he can.

It flies over the side of the bridge, it ends up in God knows where and Don takes off at an even faster clip. He realizes that he may have broken the law, but he really could care less. Fact is, he’s proud that he did it, but more on that later.

For now, his dark sunglasses cover up the water works that are ready to erupt in his eyes and his emotional state has nothing to do with the notion that he is a litter bug. Nobody running beside him has any idea the thoughts that are filling his mind, body and soul, or the physical ailments that he’s overcome.

Don’s wife, Stephanie Zwyghuizen, does, though.

She’s waiting at the finish line, which is located near the Jamestown Savings Bank Arena.

As she waits, she rewinds the life they’ve lived for the past year and her heart fills with equal parts excitement, blessings, amazement and gratitude for where they’ve been and where the future will take them.

The journey is a miracle.

“It’s not,” she admits two weeks post-race, “what I envisioned.”

Who possibly could?

Don started running seven or eight years ago in an effort to get in better shape. Within three months, he’d lost 60 pounds on his way to 80.

“I didn’t know enough to go to the gym,” he said. “The only thing I had was a pair of shoes, so I just started running, and I caught the bug.”

Don’s road race resume – he describes himself as a “mid-pack runner – includes everything from 5Ks to marathons. And, in fact, he did a half-marathon and a marathon on back-to-back days in 2010 at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

His reward?

“A ‘Goofy’ medal,” he said.

But there was nothing silly about what was going on with the Grand Rapids, Mich., native two years later.

Without warning, Don began having head-splitting migraines, high blood pressure and, ultimately, kidney failure.

“For us,” said Stephanie, the coordinator of mathematics at Jamestown Community College, “it came on really quickly. The doctor said it probably had been going on for at least five to 10 years, but with no symptoms.”

“I never felt a thing,” Don said. “(In October 2012), I was in a community theater production of ‘Legally Blonde’ and I was up on stage singing my little heart out.”

But by later that month, the headaches became so bad that Don couldn’t get out of bed some days.

“I would go to work and try not to worry about him while I was at work,” said Stephanie, 39. “Then when it was time to go home, I would just feel sick wondering what it would be like when I got home. Seriously, there were a few days when I wondered if he’d be dead when I got home.”

After multiple doctor visits, blood tests and biopsies, it was determined that Don – runner extraordinaire – needed a kidney transplant.

“If this had happened to me seven years ago, they wouldn’t have given me the transplant, because I was too heavy for it,” Don said.

Now there was the business of finding a donor.

As it turned out, Don didn’t have to look far.

That person shared the same house with him.

Stephanie admits to getting the running bug from her husband and, despite some initial reluctance, has taken to the sport head-on. In 2012, she ran a marathon in January in Phoenix, a 25K in May and a half-marathon in September, the latter while Don’s health was unknowingly in decline.

When it became clear that he would need a transplant, Stephanie, his wife of 15 years, wanted to be a donor.

“Even before we knew how bad it was, I said to him that if this gets bad, I’ve got a spare kidney you can have,” she said. “I was ready.”

And, amazingly, their blood types were compatible.

“I had no fear, no hesitation,” Stephanie said. “It’s Don, I love him and he’s my best friend. It was the most obvious thing to do. When I started going through the testing, the hospital kept saying, ‘So far, so good. … For me, it was exciting. Everything had been so scary and to know we were getting closer and closer to the surgery, it was exciting. I finally felt things were starting to turn around and we had some hope.”

But there were still hurdles to climb. Although they were happy that their surgeries were scheduled for the end of June – they were performed at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center – Don couldn’t hold off the necessity of dialysis treatment three days a week at WCA Hospital in Jamestown.

It was a long two months.

And Don, who already had 20 people who said they’d be a donor, wasn’t sold on having his wife make such a sacrifice.

“I knew that up to that point she only had to go through it next to me,” he said, “and now we’re going to have to go through it together. Now, my physical pain would be her physical pain. It would be a very short, but difficult, road for both of us.”

So as he sat in dialysis that day in April and watched the “awesome” nurses at WCA celebrate the good news of Stephanie’s kidney compatibility, Don had his water bottle nearby from which he would take a draw every now and again.

Yes, it was that water bottle that Don would toss off the bridge six months later, but the Lucy 5K wasn’t even on his radar in April. He was doing all he could back then just to get to June 26, the day of the transplant.

“It’s like a metaphor for a marathon,” Don said. “When you’re training for a marathon, there are a couple weeks when you do 20 miles every other Sunday, and that’s what I felt like with dialysis. In my brain, I was thinking, ‘This is my 20-miler week to get through,’ but when you’re done, it is a relief. You’re just so happy to have everything behind you.”

The transplant surgery was a resounding success, taking half the time the doctors at UPMC expected.

“They wheeled us into the (operating room) at 6 in the morning,” Don recalled. “I’m on the table on the left and Stephanie is on the table on the right and we were cracking jokes. We were just so happy.”

Ultimately, Stephanie was released the day after the surgery to a nearby Pittsburgh hotel and Don joined her a couple of days later. After that, they stayed with an acquaintance in the city for a week before returning to Jamestown. Follow-up appointments were eventually conducted at a UPMC kidney clinic in Erie, Pa., and the couple was told in August to “get back to our old lives,” Don said.

“She started running hard and I started running,” he said.

The Lucy Town 5K and Half-Marathon were on their radar. After training for a couple weeks, Stephanie registered for the 13.1-mile race. Three days before the 5K, Don signed up for the 5K. He had been the owner of his wife’s kidney for all of 3 months.

“I was really struggling to get those first couple miles, to get a consistent pace,” Don said, “but by the time registration was drawing close, I knew I could finish the race. I knew there would be some walking, but who cares?”

Don did finish the 5K, turning in a time of 33 minutes, 15 seconds, which was good for 95th place out of 198 entrants. A day later, Stephanie completed the half-marathon in 2:11.50, which placed her 184th out of 374 runners.

“When I finished the half-marathon,” Stephanie said, “I was praying and saying, ‘Thank you, God,’ because this is not what I saw for us. It was really a dark time at the beginning. I felt like we were both in this valley and couldn’t see the other side. But, at the race, I realized, ‘OK, this is the other side.’

“I guess if anybody is in a similar situation to what we are, I would like us to be able to say to those folks, ‘We are, potentially, the other side of that valley. When things are so completely hopeless, now we can look back and just see where we’ve been and where we are now. Maybe that can give some people hope.”

Now, back to that water bottle.

It had been with Don during his darkest hours in dialysis and it was in his hand as he waited to start the 5K on Columbus Day weekend. By the time he could see the finish line as he crossed that bridge about a half-hour later, however, it was time to discard the past and look to the future.

“Pull whatever metaphors you want from that, whatever meaning you want,” Don said, “but I just knew that Stephanie was at the end and that’s where I wanted to be.”