Better than any medal: The lessons this athlete learned after a kidney transplant
Jonathan Hickman's main goal is to raise awareness about organ donation
Jonathan Hickman had big plans after his surgery and recovery. The St. John's man had just undergone a kidney transplant – receiving the live organ from his sister Kim in early January 2015 – and had planned to celebrate in a big way.
He was going to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. Doctors gave him the go-ahead, but it wasn't until he was preparing for the trek that he found out medication given to the climbers was counter-productive to the medicine he was taking for his kidneys.
The big hike was over before he started.
"I was – I can't say disappointed – but frustrated by it," Hickman said.
During the conversation with his doctor, however, Hickman stumbled onto something he had never heard of.
"The doctor said, 'I'm surprised you don't compete in the Transplant Games.' That's how I fluked into it," Hickman told me.
"Once she explained to me what they were about, I was gung ho. I had a new mission in life and I was going to be part of it."
Kidney damage from the very start
Gung ho could describe Hickman's life. Born with reflux, his bladder was sealed at birth, and just one day old, he suffered kidney damage. Hospitals and surgeries were normal parts of his life until 1988. So was the fact that a transplant would one day be required.
His parents didn't coddle him, though, and whatever adventure the family was doing, Jonathan was included.
Aside from medication, rest and regular medical checkups, he lived a normal lifestyle.
"I've always been dealing with my kidney issues," he said during a wide-ranging interview in his office at Hickman Chrysler recently.
"But it never stopped me …I was always out doing what my brother and sister were doing, and so I was never looked at as, 'Oh, we have to take it easy with him,'" he said.
"I think that helped a lot – that I was treated no differently than anyone else."
Perfect matches found at home
His active lifestyle would be very beneficial in helping with the acceptance of a new kidney, and the recovery from the transplant. Luckily for Hickman, his brother and sister were both perfect matches for the organ.
After a family discussion, his sister Kim was selected to donate one of her kidneys.
She was first to go under the knife, on a Monday morning. By that afternoon, Hickman had a new kidney. By Wednesday, he was out of bed, walking in hospital and starting "to get back into an active life."
Last summer, that active lifestyle led Hickman and his support team – wife Alison was "my equipment manager, my media partner; she took care of everything" — to Toronto for the Canadian Transplant Games.
There he competed, and excelled, in three different sporting events: cycling five-kilometre and 20-km races, running a five-kilometre road race and swimming 50-metre and 200-metre races. His times for the different events were combined for a triathlon time.
I've always been dealing with my kidney issues. But it never stopped me.- Jonathan Hickman
The athletic side shone through, and he returned home with four gold and two silver medals. But the physical victories paled in comparison to the psychological success he found.
"You're with people who've had the same issues you've had. Even though I've always been outgoing, you're not exactly the same as everyone else. But up there you were," he explained.
"One of the biggest jokes when we were swimming was that usually when we go to the beach we have shirts on because we want to hide our scars. Here we want to brag and show off our scars to each other," he said.
Next stop: Spain
He'll reunite with "that community" in 2017, as he takes his bike, trunks and running shoes to Malaga, Spain for the World Transplant Games, from June 25 to July 2.
Although he will once again be competing – and those fires burn bright within him – Hickman knows these Games allow the participants something far more than a medal can provide.
"Just because of my competitive nature, if I don't win medals it won't be successful to me," he said.
"We're lucky in Canada to have the health care coverage we have. I was able to get this done. Other people, in different parts of the world, are going to have to make bigger sacrifices financially to get an organ transplant, so it'll be interesting to hear their side of the stories of what they had to do to get their goals."
Since his transplant, Hickman and his family have been a bit more public about organ donation and the benefits. Last year, his sister Kim was the guest speaker at the Kidney Foundation's annual dinner and auction. This year, Jonathan spoke.
'That's the power I see in it'
But their message wasn't so much about themselves as it was about how everyone can help, thanks to organ donation.
"That, and how important it is for people who are healthy today to look and decide that, 'I can make a change when I'm deceased. I can make a change to somebody else's life.' You may be a senior, or middle aged, but you can save a three-year-old girl," he said.
I did have a gentleman come into my office after he heard my story to say he went out and signed his card. That was actually better than winning the medals.- Jonathan Hickman
"That's the power I see in it."
One person donating organs can save eight lives, Hickman noted. And he has made it his mission to tell the world. Encouraging people to sign organ donation cards, informing family and creating awareness are the reasons he's speaking out.
"I don't feel like I'm a role model," he said.
"I hope someone listens to this story and signs their (donor) card. I did have a gentleman come into my office after he heard my story to say he went out and signed his card. That was actually better than winning the medals," he said.
"I hope maybe I'm an ambassador to bring more awareness to how important organ donation is."
And for that, there is no medal.