The Donor Games Championship: Bringing Awareness to Living Kidney Donation

November 12, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Geoff Tischman
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Cornelius Bornman’s life changed forever on October 7, 2021. 

Bornman and his wife were putting their ten-year-old daughter, Jaelle, to bed one night when she started panting. Her neck started pulsing extremely fast, and her heart rate seemed out of control.

The family whisked her to the emergency room and nervously waited for the diagnosis.

  • “She had kidney and heart failure and had to be put on a ventilator. Her heart rate was so high and out of control because it was trying to solve things in her body. After all, the kidney wasn’t doing its job.”

Thankfully, she wasn’t in pain. Bornman explains why.

  • “A kidney stone is super painful, but kidney failure is literally silent – a silent killer. If we were to let her go to sleep that night, she probably wouldn’t have made it through the night.”

Everything happened in fast forward from that point on.

  • “When we got to the hospital, the doctor told me the risks of the surgery and the complications, and he gave me some paperwork to sign because they wanted to put her on a ventilator. I started to ask questions, and he just put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Listen, if we don’t do something now, she won’t be with us very long.’ I started signing away as quickly as I could.”

Jaelle was in the ICU for seven days. She returned home a few days later, and for six months, she did dialysis three days a week.

  • Bornman describes the process: “We live over an hour from the hospital. And so you get your fourth grader, put her in the car at six in the morning, and have to be at the hospital by seven. She does bloodwork, gets hooked to the machine, and sits there for four hours. We have a picture of her sitting there with our laptop hooked up to the dialysis machine, trying to do homework.”

The family continued dialysis for six months and started the process of finding a donor immediately. Bornman was cleared to be the donor and started to think ahead about the process.

He had always been in good health but never on a consistent exercise program.

  • “Once a year, I would run in a 5k, and that’s about it. I never played sports in high school, and I never was athletic. For me, this CrossFit experience is the first chance I’ve ever had to work towards something and then compete with it, too. I love it.”

Knowing he was a donor, Bornman wanted to be as healthy as possible leading up to the surgery, both for himself and for his daughter. He knew overweight people have more complications and recover slower from surgery, in addition to having more pain with the surgery. He wanted none of that–he wanted to recover as quickly as possible so he could help his daughter through her recovery. 

Bornman only got in three months of CrossFit at his buddy’s gym before the surgery date arrived, but he felt the difference. He had already gained some muscle, lost some fat, and realized he wasn’t out of breath when he walked upstairs.

  • “The surgery happened on a Tuesday, and I was home by Thursday. They told me I should expect six to eight weeks off work for recovery, and by the second week, I was walking around the yard picking up sticks. I was back to work at the end of three weeks, and I returned to the gym on the fourth week.”

Even though he doesn’t know what it would have felt like post-surgery if he hadn’t found CrossFit, he is confident the base of fitness made an impact.

  • “I’m sure it made a difference even though I had just started this–I felt stronger. I think it would have taken me longer to recover if I hadn’t tried to do something to get ready.”

Unfortunately, one kidney donation has not solved the problem entirely for his daughter. 

  • Bornman explains: “It’s an ongoing process. She still has to take anti-rejection pills and other different medications. Some cause high blood pressure and diabetes, so she has to take more medicine to combat that. 20 to 30 years would be a good life expectancy for that kidney. Which, at that point, they would be looking at doing another transplant.”

Knowing this, Bornman has become an advocate for kidney donation, which led him to discover the Donor Games Championship. Bornman learned how important live kidney donation is.

  • “Deceased donation would give the kidney a 10 to 20-year lifespan, as opposed to 20 to 30. So it’s better to receive a kidney from a living donor than a disease-deceased one.”

Garet Hil is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the National Kidney Registry and the brains behind the Donor Games Championship. He became involved in transplantation when his daughter was diagnosed with kidney failure at ten years old. 

Both Hil and his wife were incompatible, which led to an extensive search to find a donor. They finally found one, and the process motivated Hil to create a better way to facilitate transplants for recipients with incompatible family donors.

  • “Kevin Kilkenny, another donor, and I came up with the idea of the Championship in 2019. We ran a triathlon on Long Island and had lunch afterward, and decided that we should meet up every year and do a different workout.”

They realized they could have donors and recipients come together for this yearly, and the Donor Games Championship was born. The first year was a push-up competition online due to COVID-19, and it grew from there.

The Donor Games had their first in-person championship in 2021 and now have had one every year since. All of them have been held at Affinity Athletics in Stamford, Connecticut. 

  • Hil explains the Games: “We have three divisions–the general, the donor, and the recipient. Sam Briggs even came and competed in the general division once. We are very fortunate that we get a handful of transplant recipients that compete. And we love that because it shows that you can get a transplant and then go on and be competitive athletes.”

They depend on two main channels to get the info out on the Donor Games.

  • “One is through our transplant centers. We have 100 member centers that we work with to organize transplants, and they forward our email to donors that they know would be interested.”
  • “The second channel is through the CrossFit community. For instance, we have a participant who owns a CrossFit gym and donated her kidney to her mom. She’s one of the early participants, sharing her story with other CrossFitters and on social media. I think it’s just leaking out organically across the CrossFit community.”

Besides bringing awareness to kidney donations and the process, Hil wanted to show people that kidney donation does not degrade someone’s athletic performance. Donors are usually fit people–you have to be very healthy to donate an organ–but so many donors are concerned they won’t be able to regain their level of fitness post-donation.

  • The Donor Games show that they can: “80% of people in the general population think that donating a kidney will impair your physical performance. If we could reduce that from 80% to 40%, we could double the number of donations in the United States. And what we’re trying to do is prove that that’s not true.”
Photo Credit: Geoff Tischman

Bornman competed in the Donor Games Championship this year and took third place. He had an incredible experience.

  • “It’s an awareness event, and they make sure to get each of us to tell our stories. The organization is also very generous – they paid for my hotel and plane ticket so I could compete. And first place is five grand.”

Hil echoes the statement.

  • “We spend about $200,000 or $300,000 a year on these events. We don’t make any money, and we don’t care. If we can move that percentage just a tiny bit, we can save many lives. We want to get a donor into the CrossFit Games.”

Bornman is still CrossFitting, and his daughter is fit as can be. He thinks about what is next.

  • “My daughter plays volleyball and basketball and will start doing CrossFit as a 12-year-old–she is so excited.”

But some children are not as lucky. Many kids were in the hospital with Jaelle, and some are still waiting on a kidney. It has been two years.

  • Bornman wants to make an impact: “I want to keep bringing awareness by using CrossFit as a medium to reach people and give them a message that you should consider donating if you are healthy. Most kidney donors live longer than the average population – you have this sense of, hey, I’ve only got one now; I can’t fall back on it.”
  • “If one gets diseased, I can’t depend on the other kidney. So it’s common for those of us who donated to continue on with very healthy choices and lifestyles.”

Learn more about living kidney donation and the Donor Games Championship.

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