Updated: Aug 25, 2021
Our military men and women are called upon regularly to sacrifice of themselves for the good of others, and David Ashley, a retired Air Force Colonel, is on a mission to inspire others to do that through living organ donation.
“Our military members and athletes are an extremely healthy population of people, ideal for helping those who are sick and have no other options,” according to David. A living kidney donor himself, David’s story of donation began in 2016 when he saw a Facebook post by a former college classmate, Chris. Chris experienced sudden kidney failure and doctors could not identify the cause, so he was put on dialysis. On the transplant waiting list, he faced a wait period of up to seven years. None of Chris’s family members were matches for a transplant.
David knew nothing about living organ donation but wanted to do his part and get tested to see if he could be a match for Chris. David assumed he would be incompatible, “but once it was clear that we were a match, and that nobody else had progressed that far, the decision was easy. Of course, I was going to help him. I was 43 years old when I made the decision to donate and had joined the military 26 years earlier at the age of 17. I was actively looking for more ways to give back as life was rich and happy.”
One of David’s biggest concerns about the surgery was the impact it would have on his fitness. Would he still be able to participate in the outdoor recreational endurance sports he was so passionate about? A competitive endurance racer since 2005, David captained the top ranked adventure racing team in the U.S. for several years in a row. He has won or placed in local and national entrance trail running, mountain biking, and adventure racing events, David’s favorite, as it reminds him of small unit military training. He had a lot of questions about how kidney donation would affect his physical capabilities moving forward. He wasn’t sure if he was going to be limited in his fitness or run into complications from the surgery. Unsuccessful in his efforts to find other endurance athletes who were living donors, David had to walk forward in faith that his body would recover and still be able to do the things he loves post-surgery.
Another concern was getting the approval from his chain of command and the Air Force medical HQ. David was active duty and a Colonel at the time he got tested and approved as a donor match. Thankfully, everyone fully supported his decision and rapidly approved the request. David recounts, “The biggest challenge was finding time in my work and personal schedule for the long recovery period, and a date where my wife and parents could be present and with me following the surgery while I recovered.” The surgery took place in January of 2017, at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Both donor and recipient did very well during the surgery and in recovery. Chris is doing very well with his new kidney, and the “kidney brothers” are good family friends and meet up now and then.
Well beyond short-term recovery from surgery however, David’s knowledge of how Chris’ life had changed due to living with kidney disease and dialysis, deeply impacted him and ultimately moved him to retire early from the Air Force. He noted that “Chris’ most important thoughts were about his wife and son, not about his career. I started reflecting on my own priorities in life after the donation and questioned why I was putting so many hours into my career versus into my family. This was a big piece of my decision to retire rather suddenly and pursue some of my passion for spending time in the outdoors.” It took David about a year post-surgery to feel like he was back to 100% health. That said, he ran a 40-mile ultramarathon about four months after surgery. He also competed in a 6-day, non-stop world championship adventure race just eight months later. David recounts, “Those test cases told me that, while my fitness was still less than before surgery, I was gaining it back quickly. After about a year I felt up to full strength for my workouts, and at the two year and beyond point, I started feeling more fit than pre-donation.”
David trains for endurance with long and moderately paced miles on foot and bike. Then, as mountain climbs approach, he adds hiking up hills with a heavy pack to get his calves and back ready. David wants people to know that they can be living donors and still be active in their passions – even if those passions require extreme physical endurance. That led David to start a website, www.AdventureKidney.com. It started as a blog on the 2-year anniversary of his donation. Once he felt confident in his health and fitness, he wanted to help others understand that living donation still allows people to lead full, healthy, active, even extreme lifestyles.
“As my confidence grew, I became more comfortable talking about my own experience and then advocating for other athletes to consider making a similar decision.”
David realized he “needed something epic that would capture the attention of other endurance athletes and the media. So when a Mount Everest climb became my goal, Adventure Kidney transformed from a blog into a living donor advocacy campaign.”
David’s new venture is to be the first living kidney donor to climb the Seven Summits - the highest mountain on each of the seven continents. He has teamed up with Rob Powers, the founder of the non-profit American 300 Purple Heart Summits, to achieve this goal. Not only is David doing this for himself to inspire living organ donation, but David is working as a mentor climber for Purple Heart Summits, climbing with combat wounded veterans. He reached the first of seven summits in January of 2020. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with Rob Powers and a two-time purple heart recipient from the U.S. Marine Corps. The next couple climbs have been postponed due to COVID-19, but David plans to get back out there as soon as it’s safe to do so.
The original goal was to compete all 7 summits within a 2-year span. David hopes to inspire other military men and women, as well as athletes, to consider living donation. There are over 100,000 people in the United States waiting for a kidney and living donors could end their wait. You don’t have to be an extreme adventure endurance athlete to give someone a perfectly healthy kidney, but David is living proof that you can do more with one kidney than most people do with two.