GREENFIELD — What hasn’t killed Kathy Dowling is finally starting to make her stronger.
Dowling, former guidance director at Greenfield-Central High School, has survived – sometimes narrowly – a myriad of health problems that have plagued her over the past eight years. After a successful second kidney transplant eight months ago – her 79th surgery – Dowling is regaining her strength and will use it to raise awareness for organ donation during the swimming competition at next month’s Transplant Games of America.
“Before my transplant, I couldn’t even open a bottle of water,” Dowling said.
She was sitting at her kitchen table, doling out the dozens of medications she takes on a daily basis. She was able to stop taking two just recently, but the rest are what she calls “lifers.”
Endless medication doses don’t normally signal good health, but they keep Dowling’s body from rejecting her new kidney and prevent a return of the malabsorbtion problem that calcified her own two kidneys and the organ she received during the first transplant. This is the best she has felt in years.
“I’m so grateful for Ted’s kidney,” Dowling said of Ted Jacobs, a co-worker at the high school who became a donor. “Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am.”
Dowling’s return to health is also her return to the water. A lifelong swimmer and former swim coach, Dowling hasn’t been able to get in the water for the past two years.
“I always had some gizmo, like a catheter, that I couldn’t get wet,” she explained matter-of-factly.
After her October transplant, however, doctors removed her dialysis port. Dowling joined a gym, where she has slowly been working on gaining back the strength – and the life – she wasn’t sure she’d ever have again.
Several times a week, she lifts weights, attends water aerobics and swims laps – training for the 50-meter freestyle, back stroke and breast stroke events she’ll compete in at the games.
“I’m not going to medal or anything,” she said with a laugh. “I just want to participate.”
At 57, Dowling said she will be the oldest person on the Indiana team. And she just made the cut. Participants on the Indiana team are required to be at least nine months post-surgery. Her nine-month mark will be four days before the games begin.
The Transplant Games of America are held every two years in cities throughout the country. Held this year in Grand Rapids, Mich., the Olympics-style event features athletes who are either recipients or living donors of life-saving transplant organs. From July 28 through July 31, athletes will compete in a dozen sports.
Participants raise money through sponsors that’s then donated for transplant research. Dowling said most of the money she raises will go to the National Kidney Foundation.
That’s reason enough for Christy Hilton to give. She’s already donated through Dowling’s website.
“In addition to all the effort she’s putting in to compete in this, she’s also raising other people up,” Hilton said. “It’s just amazing.”
Dowling sees nothing amazing in what she is doing, however. For her, it’s just a great chance to say thanks to all her supporters and raise awareness for organ transplants.
“It’s all about celebrating life and honoring the donors,” she explained. “It’s a great big thank you to so many people.”
Dowling knows she’s lucky. She has survived a coma; flesh-eating bacteria; MRSA; and the condition that caused her renal failure, which was so rare it took years for doctors to even discover the problem. She found not one, but two living donors who were matches for organ transplants.
It seemed like every time things were getting better, something else went wrong. And every time it looked like she might not make it, Dowling battled back.
Now, with seemingly clear skies ahead, Dowling is glad for the opportunity to use her newfound health and retirement to give back.
It will be a chance to show her appreciation to both of her living donors – Rick Schoeff and Jacobs – and friends and family who have supported her. It also lets Dowling pay respect to the people who haven’t been as fortunate – for people like Stephanie Humphrey.
Humphrey, daughter of Dowling’s co-worker Linda Yates and husband Bill Yates, became a friend and confidante to Dowling when she was preparing for her first transplant. Humphrey had received a liver transplant several years earlier. Like Dowling, Humphrey eventually needed a second transplant. Unlike Dowling, she did not receive it in time. Dowling said she’ll be thinking of Humphrey and the other transplant recipients in her life while she’s competing.
“For her to feel honor for doing it for Stephanie, it just touches our hearts,” Bill Yates said. “That’s the kind of person Kathy is, though.”
Dowling says it’s bigger than her, however; it’s about surviving and the people who are willing to sacrifice parts of themselves to help others.
“People just don’t realize how precious every day is,” Dowling explained. “I feel so fortunate that everything worked out.”