SOMERS, N.Y. - Lifelong athlete Steve Wilson sure makes taking things to the next level look like a breeze.
He’s hiked up Mount Kilimanjaro with a set of wonky knees and battered his 50-something body over and over in major triathlons. To “relax,” he rides his bike for hours.
But none of these things have been more challenging—or rewarding—than what the Somers dad did this past winter.
He gave one of his kidneys to a desperately ill stranger.
Wilson’s a modest guy; he’s only talking about it because he wants to raise awareness about living organ donations.
The concept of organ donation wasn’t even on his radar two decades ago when he learned that a high school buddy was going to give a kidney to his infant son.
“Is he serious? Is that even possible?” Wilson said he thought at the time.
Ten years later, after a cousin had donated a kidney to his wife, the seed of the idea planted in 1999 started to sprout.
Wilson does his “deepest thinking” on two wheels. His favorite spot to do this meditative pedaling is Seven Lakes Drive, a scenic road that runs for 18 miles between Rockland and Orange counties.
It’s a place where Wilson says he always feels “flooded with gratitude.”
Last June, just before heading out for another cathartic ride, Wilson paused to scroll through Facebook. There was a post from another former classmate whose daughter had just received the life-saving gift of a kidney from a woman in her town.
Overcome by a spectrum of emotions, Wilson teared up at the thought of the “pain and helplessness that “these parents must have endured.”
He was thankful for his and wife Meg’s three healthy children: Ryan, Garrett and Meredith. And, finally, he felt inspired “and in awe” of the donor.
“I remember thinking, ‘I want to be like that woman,’ ” Wilson recalls.
Her selfless act was, in his opinion, the epitome of “taking the meaning of life to the next level.”
One question played over and over in Wilson’s mind as he later pedaled through Harriman State Park—his idea of “heaven.”
“What if I could give someone another shot at life? Another shot to ride their metaphorical bicycle on their metaphorical Seven Lakes Drive?”
He assumed—even hoped—that that thought “would go away by the end of the ride.”
Three weeks later, Wilson was standing in the parking lot of a local grocery store. He took out his cell phone and called the Weill Cornell/NewYork Presbyterian Hospital transplant center in Manhattan.
(Meg says she was concerned, but not the least bit surprised, when Wilson told her he wanted to be an organ donor. “If you want to do it, do it,” she told him.)
Wilson hustled down to the New York City hospital for testing.
It wasn’t long before he became a link in a living donor “chain,” an interconnecting line of people who need kidney transplants.
It’s a way of increasing the donor pool by giving folks like Wilson who are unable to donate to a loved one or friend the chance to donate through an exchange between incompatible donor-recipient pairs. The domino effect creates recipient-donor clusters.
Each subsequent cluster begins with a “leftover” donor, who kick-starts a new one.
According to Wilson, these chains—started with a so-called non-directed donor—are usually made up of three to six people.
“It’s a way to do it so there are the best possible matches,” he says.
Non-directed donors receive up to five vouchers from the National Kidney Registry. That means that if they, or members of their immediate family, need a kidney, they are automatically moved up the recipient list.
In late January, Wilson finally got word of a potential recipient.
Just days later, he was being prepped for surgery at NewYork Presbyterian Hospital. Just before going under, he watched as a member of the team walked into the operating room with “a big box.”
It would carry Wilson’s healthy kidney to Seattle, where its 53-year-old recipient waited. If anything went wrong on her end, the organ would be given to the next person down the chain.
The operation itself is “not difficult at all,” and even if it was, it’s “a wonderful trade-off because you get the chance to save multiple lives,” Wilson says.
In true Ironman fashion, he had the surgery on a Thursday morning, was home by Friday night, and back “at work” as a wealth management adviser (albeit from home) the following Monday.
Because of privacy laws, donors do not know who their recipients are, but recipients can—after 90 days have past—ask for their donor’s contact information.
The doctors have let Wilson know, however, the woman is doing well.
Now that things are back on track, so to speak, he wants to spread the word about the importance of becoming a living organ donor. And what’s a more natural way to do it than, Wilson says, through his love of Ironman triathlons.
Invited to compete in the Ironman 2020 World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, he will be using the opportunity to represent Kidney Donor Athletes (KDA), a nonprofit that combines athletics and living donor advocacy.
Wilson hopes to raise money for kidney donor-related causes.
Of course, whether the October event takes place depends on how the COVID-19 pandemic plays out. In a statement issued on
March 19, the Ironman Foundation acknowledged that its athletes and communities “want to be racing.”
“We do, too,” said the organization, whose mission is to provide “exceptional, life-changing race experience for athletes of all levels, from their first step to the finish line.”
But it can only do that by “providing the safest possible environment, and safeguarding the citizens of our host communities.”
It expected the coronavirus crisis to continue to substantially alter the global sports landscape in the coming months. This means that it’s inevitable that events will be postponed, restricted or modified.
Nevertheless, Wilson’s thrown himself into training for the championships. Not allowed to run because of his knee-replacement surgery in 2018, he speed-walks instead and is swimming in Lake Mahopac.
“The message is awareness; that’s the ultimate goal,” says Wilson. “More people would consider donating if they knew how easy the surgery is. It saves someone’s life and it doesn’t change yours at all.”
Physically, that’s true. Spiritually? Another thing all together.
Wilson’s happy to be back in Seven Lakes Drive biking nirvana. Due to a stranger from Seattle, he now has a new mantra:
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“I may never meet her, but if I do, I will give her a tight, long hug and say ‘Thank you’ for giving me the opportunity to live past myself,” he says.
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