On the first day of seventh grade, when her classmates were taking turns sharing what they did over their summer vacations, Tracey Hulick heard a story that made her want to save a life through organ donation.
When the opportunity came 27 years later, she went for it.
The idea was planted in 1990 at a middle school in southern Wisconsin, when a classmate said her uncle had donated a kidney to her cousin over the summer.
“As soon as I heard it, I thought, ‘That’s awesome. Who wouldn’t want to do that?,’ ” said Hulick, 40, who now lives in Lakewood. “Everybody else started talking about, ‘That’s crazy. I could never do that. That’s so risky.’ I’m like, ‘How am I the only one in this classroom to think the other way?’ I thought, ‘Someday, I’m going to do that.’ “
And she did. In May 2017, while still living in Wisconsin, Hulick gave her left kidney to a stranger who lived in Colorado Springs. They became friends, and Hulick soon fulfilled a long-held dream of moving to Colorado and pursuing her passion for trail running in the Rockies.
She is blazing trails for organ donors, too. Last week, she ran a 50-mile ultra marathon, the Bear Chase, in Lakewood’s Bear Creek Lake Park. She did it in part to prove it is possible to run a 50-miler with only one kidney, completing the race in 9 hours, 31 minutes and finishing second in the women’s standings.
“I want people to be able to use this as an example to show you can be an endurance athlete and do well with one kidney,” Hulick said.
Endurance runners who donate kidneys have special issues to consider, especially in the ultra distances. Staying hydrated, always a high priority for endurance athletes, is even more crucial with only one kidney, so Hulick carries extra water when she’s on a long run. She also won’t take ibuprofen, a common aid for endurance athletes because of its anti-inflammatory properties, because it can be hard on kidneys.
In preparing for the race, Hulick tried to find other endurance athletes who were kidney donors. To her surprise, she could only find two. Given the dearth of information, she started a website two weeks ago (kidneydonorathlete.com) to be a source “where kidney donor athletes share their stories and answer your questions.”
Hulick also is trying to raise awareness of “donor chains” like the one that united her, her recipient, Diana Pratt, and Pratt’s husband. When Diana Pratt’s kidneys failed, her husband wanted to give her one of his, but he wasn’t a match. Hulick was, so she gave Pratt her left kidney and Pratt’s husband gave one of his to a man in California. That man’s daughter donated a kidney to still another recipient, keeping the chain going.
Pratt was just a few days away from being put on dialysis when Hulick’s kidney became available.
“I was ecstatic to know that I wasn’t going to have to do dialysis,” Pratt said. “The most selfless thing Tracey ever did was to step up on her own and decide she was going to give up a kidney to someone she doesn’t even know. Who does that? I love what she’s doing.”
Hulick’s kidney was removed at a hospital in Madison and flown to Porter Adventist Hospital in Denver, where Pratt was waiting.
At first, Hulick wanted to keep her donation anonymous.
“I didn’t know anybody who had kidney disease,” Hulick said. “I just wanted the kidney to go where it was supposed to go. I didn’t want anyone to act like they owed me.”
Pratt was persistent in asking for a meeting, though, and Hulick relented.
“She seemed very sweet,” Hulick said. “I come out here to visit anyway, because I love Colorado and I always wanted to live here. So we did what I call our ‘kidney reunion’ at Porter Adventist Hospital. They did a great job.”
She moved here in May.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, more than 100,000 people in the U.S. are on the waiting list for kidney transplants; 13 people die daily while waiting.
“I still can’t wrap my head around it,” Hulick said. “It kind of doesn’t seem real.”