Linda Cheatham, 60, takes all the proper precautions when revving up the engine on her 1997 white Porsche Boxter and hits the track at Virginia International Raceway. It’s been an 18-year-habit to fasten her five-point harness, cover her peppered hair with a helmet, secure a neck brace, and zip-up her white Nomex racing suit.
Cheatham decided she wanted to learn how to race cars on Aug. 10, 1990 – one day after her kidney transplant.
Cheatham and her family share a hereditary disease known as polycystic kidney liver disease, which affects more than 600,000 Americans and is the second leading cause of kidney transplants in this country. Half of the people with this disease will suffer kidney failure and need a transplant – 10 members of Cheatham’s family have had kidney transplants as a result of the disease. And, on Aug. 9, 1990 Cheatham became number 11.
When she’s not racing her Porsche, Cheatham works as a Certified Public Accountant and Certified Fraud Examiner in Alexandria, Va. – just outside Washington, D.C. – to pay the bills.
Transplantation isn’t as sexy as it was 15 to 20 years ago, Cheatham admitted. “It seems like every time I tell someone I have a kidney transplant, they say, ‘Oh I have a friend, co-worker, cousin who has had a transplant.’”
According to the National Kidney Foundation, over 17,000 kidney transplants take place each year in addition to the 18,659 overall transplants in 2008 so far. Surgeons perform kidney transplants more often than any other transplantation, the reason being that because people have two kidneys, they can act as what the transplant world calls a “living donor.”
Cheatham’s donor, Robin Ward, is among the living donor population. Ward and her husband were legally adopted by Cheatham’s family 25 years ago. Praised for her desire to help others, the full-time licensed physical therapist and Missouri community college professor was a worthy kidney candidate for Cheatham. Since every other Cheatham family member genetically contracted polycystic kidney liver disease, Ward was the ideal donor – still in a family but not blood related.
The surgery itself was the least of Cheatham’s worries. She wasn’t only close friends with her donor, but with her surgeon as well. Cheatham’s friend Dr. Hans Sollinger was and still is the head transplant surgeon at the University of Wisconsin hospital in Madison. It calmed her nerves to know that Dr. Sollinger, a man she trusts for his world-wide reputation and friendship, would be taking care of her during her kidney transplant.
Ward and Cheatham went into the hospital the night before surgery and were the first transplants the next morning. The procedure was as routine as kidney transplants can be and both donor and recipient were up and walking by the day’s end. “They purposely put donors and recipients far apart to force activity,” Cheatham said.
The University of Wisconsin’s recovery program didn’t have Ward and Cheatham in bed for long. Nurses in the Madison Transplant ward push donors to walk and visit recipient’s rooms and vice versa to encourage physical activity. Less than 24 hours later, the surgical team told their patients, “You’re well now, so no laying around and acting sick.” That’s how the university’s recovery program is designed – its purpose is to keep the patient active.
Back in the 1990s, the university hospital kept patients for a three-week period, Cheatham said, to ensure that all of their medications were regulated and that this did not have an early rejection episode. Rejection is the biggest fear transplant recipients face after surgery. While Ward’s road to recovery was a week, Cheatham’s was one day shy of two weeks. It was nice, Cheatham said, “Since I lived in town and the surgeon was my friend I was allowed to go home early and come back for daily labs.”
Cheatham’s main concern is that people today aren’t as astounded by the miracle of transplantation as they used to be. The once unimaginable medical procedure is treated as serious but doable, as far as she’s concerned, “Because it isn’t as unusual anymore.”
She isn’t alone in her thinking. TRIO, an organ transplantation advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. is full of transplant recipients like Cheatham who volunteer to spread how people can donate life.
When Cheatham met Mary Lamm, a founding member of the Nation’s Capital Area Chapter of TRIO at a Polycystic Kidney Disease annual conference in Kansas City, they were on a panel together. The two spoke and discovered that they lived less than one mile from each other.
After getting involved in 1992, Cheatham started serving on the National Board of Directors for TRIO since 1993 and is still on it today. All together, Cheatham has sat on the TRIO’s national board for 9 to 10 years and now helps serve as the assistant treasurer in addition to her duties as local chapter president for the Washington, D.C. area.
“The only thing we have in common,” Cheatham said, “is transplantation. We are very age, race, religion, and socio-economically diverse group.”
After her transplant, Cheatham wanted to give back to her community. Cheatham now spends a lot of time on raising awareness of transplant related issues. Her work with transplant issues does not rest with TRIO, Cheatham spreads the importance of organ donation. One of her favorite ways to do spread the word is by racing.
This year is Cheatham’s thirteenth time racing in the Cannonball One Lap of America. Cheatham, who’s first race was in 1994, takes great pride in her yearly completion of the eight day, cross-country racing trek.
Cheatham is known by her friends as being comfortable in many settings – hanging around the raceway is one of them.
The exhilarating and exhausting One Lap for America is where Linda divvies her time between the track and the rest of the raceway. When she’s not behind the wheel, Cheatham walks the around handing out donor literature to raise awareness.
Cheatham also uses the Porsche for holiday parades, health fairs, and company picnics.
The biggest misconception of people with transplants, Cheatham said, is that recipients are stuck in bed the rest of their lives with an IV in their arm. Cheatham is living proof, taking auto racing and SCUBA diving after receiving her new kidney.
Even though some people have criticized her for her dangerous hobbies, Cheatham takes pride in living life. “The only things my surgeon told me I couldn’t do for the first year were sky diving and tackle football,” she said. “The purpose of a transplant is to get your life back, not to live in a bubble.”
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