Kidney transplant saga ends at TD Beach to Beacon 10K finish line in Cape Elizabeth
CAPE ELIZABETH — Last August, when Patty Blankenship ran the TD Beach to Beacon 10K Road Race, Daavid Swift watched from the sidelines.
But after a life-saving kidney transplant brought them together forever, the two will run the race side by side at this year's race on Aug. 2.
Just a week after running the Beach to Beacon in 2013, Blankenship, a 48-year-old mother and social worker from South Portland, gave Swift one of her kidneys as a volunteer living donor in the kidney transplant program at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
After the two crossed paths almost by chance, they are now bonded by shared organs and Blankenship's sacrifice.
Swift, a Freeport resident and 26-year-old adopted son of Blankenship's former work colleague, started showing signs of illness in late 2012. His parents, who adopted Daavid (pronounced Dah-veed) from Colombia when he was 4, hadn't a clue about his rare, hereditary kidney disease, membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis. By Christmas he was on dialysis.
"We were blown away," Becky Swift, Daavid's mother, said of the disease's speed.
Because dialysis is only a temporary bridge, the family knew Swift would soon need a replacement for his failing kidneys.
Transplants from deceased persons can be successful, but data from the United Network of Organ Sharing show higher survival rates for transplants from living donors. Most recent data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services show more than 108,000 people in the country are waiting for kidney donations, and the average wait time is two to five years.
Because Swift's adoptive parents were not a match, he was facing at at least two years of dialysis.
Despite the dozens of pills and multiple weekly visits to a hospital room filled with patients decades older than him, Swift said, the worst part of his ordeal was mental. "I was in the doldrums, in a dark depression," he said. "I didn’t talk to anyone."
Until, during a stay at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Becky Swift ran into Blankenship.
They knew each other from Pond Cove Elementary School in Cape Elizabeth, where Becky Swift has worked for 30 years as a literacy instructor. Blankenship was a social worker at the school before moving to the Emergency Department at Maine Med.
The former colleagues exchanged small talk and Blankenship learned about Swift's deteriorating condition, and that he would need a kidney donor. And then she had a thought.
"I immediately wondered, what do you need to do to do that?" she recalled.
Curiosity struck her again several months later, when Blankenship ran into a friend who relayed more bad news about Swift's condition.
From that point, Blankenship said, she was on a mission.
She began doing research, and called Brigham and Women's Hospital to learn more about their living donor program. After consulting with her family members, who were supportive, and working with the hospital to test her health, in April 2013 she found out she was a match for Swift.
The Swift family was floored.
"We were friends and colleagues, but we weren’t exceptionally close, which makes it all the more remarkable that someone would do that," Becky Swift recalled. "She’d never met Daavid before. She just knew his story and knew she was going to help him somehow."
They set the surgery date for Aug. 8, 2013, which would allow Blankenship to run the Beach to Beacon. Training for the race gave her the drive to get in the best physical health in preparation for the surgery.
While she was running last summer, Blankenship said, "that’s all that was on my mind."
Just days after Swift watched Blankenship finish the race in 54:44.7, they were in Brigham and Women's Hospital beds, with Blankenship's kidney successfully transplanted to Swift.
"I’m very lucky, Patty went out of her way," Swift said. "I was special because she was special."
After six months of recovery, Swift began returning to the life he'd been forced to put on hold. He now works at the Portland Yacht Club in Falmouth and assists with his family's popcorn business, Swifty's Downtown Kettle Corn in Freeport.
"The last couple of years have really been a roller-coaster ride, but we’re on the other side and it's really remarkable," Becky Swift said. "Patty was put in our path miraculously. There’s no way to describe it other than that she has saved (Daavid's) life."
Although being a living donor, especially for a relative stranger, can be a scary thought, Blankenship said the reward was worth the risk. She wants to spread awareness so others will participate in living donation programs.
"You can do this and go on," she said. "It can be done, and there’s so much progress that’s been made."
She also said she'd do it again in a heartbeat.
"I work in an emergency room; I see horrible things every day. To do something good was a gift," Blankenship said. "I just hope he’s good and has a good life. And I have to trust in the world, that if anything ever happens to (her daughter), by some crazy twist of fate, someone else is going to take care of that."
Aside from the daily pills that prevent his body from rejecting the transplanted kidney, all that's left of Swift's disease are abdominal scars – his, and Blankenship's.
And as a benchmark of their resiliency and health, the two are training together for the 17th annual TD Beach to Beacon 10K.
“It’s like we’ve come full circle,” Swift said after a recent training session at Cape Elizabeth High School.
"It's pretty cool," Blankenship added. "We started and ended with the Beach to Beacon."