“Hardship Without Trouble: A Kidney Donor’s Story,” with Bobby McLaughlin ’89

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Bobby McLaughlin. His journey toward becoming a kidney donor began with a bicycle accident in 2016. It led him through a life-giving surgery and then up the side of Mount Kilimanjaro. This former SPU soccer player and assistant coach is out to show the world how active and healthy live organ donors can be. Bobby, thank you so much for joining us today.

Bobby McLaughlin: Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Amanda: Well, let’s get started with that bicycle accident. I think we all have those moments in life that at the time feel like, God, why me? Why is this happening to me? And yet when you look back later you say, “Wow, I’m almost glad that happened because it set other things in motion.” Let’s hear about that.

Bobby: Absolutely. Yeah, it’s the best bike crash that I’ve ever had. It was a beautiful July day and I was taking my car in for service and instead of waiting at the dealership for it, I thought, “I’m going to take my bike and ride home.” And it’s a ride I had done several times before and there’s a section where you can cruise along the road at a pretty good clip and there was a car coming in the opposite direction. I thought, “It’s probably about time to get up on that sidewalk and stay out of the road here.” And I was enjoying cruising along the road, so I wanted to stay there. And I kept seeing driveway after driveway pass by. I was like, “No, not that one. We’ll get the next one,” and I ran out of room and needed to take that one.

And the lip, when I looked at it, was a solid inch to get up that driveway, and I was like, “I don’t know if I really like that,” but I really had no choice. And next thing I knew, I was flying over the handlebar and saw a utility pole and one of those multi mailbox structures and I was like, “Don’t hit your head. Don’t hit your head. Don’t hit your head.” And it was as if everything slowed down, didn’t hit my head and landed and was like, “Okay.” Did a quick body scan and I was like, “Okay. Yeah, that leg is pretty bloody but it’s okay. It’s not broken.” And come to find out, “Okay, I think I’m pretty good.”

There was a good Samaritan who stopped by and he’s like, “Dude, are you okay?” And I was like, “Yeah, I think so.” He’s like, “You want me to take you home?” And I’m like, “No, I think I’m good.” And this is about five minutes after I went for my little flight and then my left wrist just started throbbing and the pain came like no pain I’ve ever felt. And it was a good thing he was still there because I went downhill really, really quickly and he didn’t ask me anymore. He dismantled my bike and put it in his car and then ushered me home.

I had to give him directions where in the flurry of all this, I didn’t even get the guy’s name. So I thanked him but not the way I normally would like to. And I called my brother and I was like, “Dude, I got a big problem. Come get me, I need to get to the ER.” X-rays, fracture, got some pain meds, needed to let the swelling come down so we had surgery on it about three weeks later. At the end of the surgery … there was a little pre-op consult with the surgeon and he’s like, “Yeah, we’ll just do this and that and it’ll be fine.” And after the surgery he said, “It was a little worse than we thought when we got in there. So you have some donor bone and tissue in there and we had to reconstruct your wrist and you’ve got a plate and 10 screws in there.”

“And after the surgery he said, ‘It was a little worse than we thought when we got in there. So you have some donor bone and tissue in there and we had to reconstruct your wrist and you’ve got a plate and 10 screws in there.’”

And I was like, “There’s some bone and tissue in there?” And so he just kind of explained they have a little vault of things that they can tap into if they need to. And through that process I was able to write a letter to the family for that donation, and I did because it’s just a wrist, right? It’s not a huge deal. But I love golf and I wanted to play catch with my son and it was a big deal to me, to get this donation.

Amanda: It’s just a wrist until you can’t use it, right?

Bobby: Absolutely.

Amanda: You don’t think of it as a big deal until all of a sudden the possibility that that won’t be useful to you anymore.

Bobby: Right. Yeah. This brief little flash of like, “Oh no, what’s my life going to be without my wrist?” Which looking back is kind of comical to have that outlook in the moment. But to exchange letters with Dave’s family was really, really powerful for me to be able to express the true gratitude that I had and have for their gift. And in their period of loss, knowing that someone is benefiting from that, it was important for me to convey that to them. And I come to find out Dave’s active in his life and loves to golf and guess who else loves to golf? So a year to the date of the surgery, I played a round of golf and did an honorary tee shot for him and relayed that back to the family kind of as our closing of our communication. But the best bike crash because it started this chain of events that I had no idea were coming.

Amanda: So you hurt your wrist, never really thought about organ or tissue or bone grafting and donation, but now it’s top of mind. Now you’ve gone through this cycle of getting your wrist back through the generosity of someone else and their family. What was the next step? Why wasn’t that the end? Why wasn’t that round of golf the end of your journey with donation?

Bobby: It’s a great question because from there the story goes completely sideways in great ways and none that I knew at that point. But I think there was a village of people around me when I grew up that displayed care for others, that would give selflessly to others out of love of what they’re doing or just loving helping others. So being kind of surrounded by that environment and seeing examples constantly, I think that became part of what I wanted to do, like, that’s really neat. Where you can just hold the door and somebody smiles and goes through the door, how cool is that? And how hard is that? So I had this kind of underlying, I want to help people trait and I haven’t delved too deeply into that further, I just kind of have sat with that there. So with that being there and receiving Dave’s gift, definitely donation was firmly planted on my plate.

At the time, my mom was going through some cancer treatments and needed all kinds of blood supply as part of this. And I don’t know why it didn’t dawn on me before, but it did then. Like, “Oh my goodness, all these people donating blood, they have no idea who’s benefiting from it,” but I’m watching it with my own eyes and will never know who those people are and it doesn’t matter. It’s just doing good. So it was that, the bike crash and the donation and then being there with my siblings and my parents kind of supporting what my mom was going through was kind of the next door to open into the donation world.

Amanda: So a lot of people in that situation would go get that organ donor card and put it in your wallet or your purse to say, “When I pass away, whatever’s usable, I want that to move on.” Not many people say, “Okay, I’m going to go give away a healthy kidney.” What made you make that decision?

Bobby: The next door was opened and kidney donation entered my life just like that. I met a gal who had donated her kidney and so I learned about kidney donation, and she was healthy and her kind of mantra was like, “I’m healthy, I can do this, why can’t you?” And it’s like, “Yeah, why not?” I got to see her journey through her eyes after the fact. But the real clincher for me was when I got to meet her recipient and we had a really emotional conversation of what life was like for her and her husband and kids and family and friends and you just kind of get blown away by the impact that that donation and her transplant, the ripple effects, it’s virtually never ending. And I was like, “This is really cool, and I’m healthy and I’m going to go get tested.” And so we finished that conversation and I called the University of Washington and said, “I’d like to start the process of being evaluated.” And so it came, just like that.

Amanda: And talk us through that ripple effect because you didn’t even have a specific person you were donating to, but then say, I have a sibling who needs a kidney but I may not be a match, but I am willing to donate. So talk us through that ripple effect of how one donation starts that cascade.

Bobby: So, there are a bunch of different ways kidney donation can positively impact the recipient. If you’re a match, you can donate directly to. Since I was donating nondirected, I basically was offering my kidney into the transplant pool for whatever they could use that for. And at the time they were doing longer chains, whereby if you needed a transplant and you had a willing donor who was not a match for you, along comes this nondirected donor who is a match for you. So my kidney goes to you and your donor, their kidney goes to someone else who’s in a similar position. And so our chain, last knowledge that I had was up to four transplants and I was able to meet the second donor in our chain whose family connected to Devin, who’s the man who received my kidney.

Amanda: I don’t even know how to ask you this question, what does that feel like to be a living, breathing, healthy person and give life to somebody else?

Bobby: It’s been an evolving process for me. At first, when you’re going through the testing at the transplant center to make sure you’re healthy and clear to be able to live after with one kidney, you’re one remaining grows to compensate for the one that has left upwards of 80, 85% or so, so they want to make sure all systems are go for that. But to think that we as people if we’re cleared, can give something to help someone else. If I don’t sit with that, it’s like, yeah, it’s no different than holding the door for somebody or saying hi or sharing a smile with someone.

Amanda: A matter of degrees. It’s just a matter of degrees.

Bobby: It really is. But when I sit with, “O wow.” Devin needed a kidney transplant in the biggest way and there’s a lot of people that were part of that, his intended donor who was not a match for him, but she stepped up on his behalf. She’s a massive part of this because without her, he doesn’t receive my kidney. He needs somebody willing on his end to donate for him. So it’s this beautiful fabric of teamwork, of complete strangers doing just what they can do in the moment. And when you piece all these layers together, then Devon gets a kidney. I get chills when I stop and think about it.

To meet his wife and to meet their kids. And these kids got their dad back and they got to have more time with him in the way that they had envisioned and dreamed of, not him on dialysis and struggling through days like the trooper that he was. And so it’s a great feeling and unfortunately COVID struck him and he passed within this past year. And to go through some of that with the family and be there for his celebration of life and even further to hear from his wife Paige, that the joy that she could take knowing that he was going to donate whatever he could in his passing so that others could benefit from that. And these ripples just continue and it’s really an honor to participate in something like that. And it’s one of those things I would tell people I would do it again if I could.

Amanda: Wow. And of course you’re not the only one that is a part of that process and I can imagine … You’re saying it’s hard to even put into words. So there must be a lot of solace in sitting with other donors, others who have received a kidney or other organ donation. Let’s talk about the Kidney Donor Athletes, the KDA association that you became a part of, let’s talk about that.

Bobby: So when I was cleared to donate, we picked a date. They basically ask a nondirected donor, “What’s a good date for you?” And it was approaching the end of the year and Thanksgiving was coming and Christmas and the transplant schedule becomes part of the conversation of what makes sense. And we decided to wait until the turn of the year and we picked the first Wednesday in January. They do living donations on Wednesdays over at University of Washington. And so January 2 was our date. And as soon as that was on the calendar, it was like, “Wow, that’s going to be really cool,” and there’s more.

I had this overwhelming feeling that there’s more to this story, I don’t know what that is, but I’m going to go poke around and see what I can learn and see what happens with it. So I kind of dove into the world of the internet and seeing what was out there with kidney transplants. And it was the same thing, I got introduced to this gentleman in Connecticut who passed me on to a lady in Florida who then passed me on to this gal in Colorado who had started Kidney Donor Athletes, that’s really cool.

Amanda: That’s me. I’m an athlete and I’m donating a kidney.

Bobby: I had arrived at a place where I can walk into this community and introduce myself and meet other people who are athletes or people who moved their body for overall health, whatever it would be. And when I entered that community and began to meet people, it was clear to me that there were a lot of similarities to our journeys and our stories. And it pretty quickly felt like home to me. Kidney Donor Athletes grew from this platform of providing a place for those who are considering donation to hear stories from those who have and what the entire process was like, could they get back to the active lifestyle that they had? And it grew from nothing into now hundreds of people who have shared their story so that others can benefit and a growing community every day of just supportive people who just want to help others by sharing stories.

“Kidney Donor Athletes grew from this platform of providing a place for those who are considering donation to hear stories from those who have and what the entire process was like, could they get back to the active lifestyle that they had? And it grew from nothing into now hundreds of people who have shared their story so that others can benefit and a growing community every day of just supportive people who just want to help others by sharing stories.”

Amanda: Right. Support each other, but I’m sure also really getting the word out that you can be a healthy, active, even an athlete after a live kidney donation, to help people understand that what life post donation can look like. So you planned something that I can’t even imagine doing with two kidneys and that is to climb Kilimanjaro with other live kidney donors, really to just bring notice to the fact that this was still possible. Why Kilimanjaro?

Bobby: Yeah.

Amanda: That’s a good question.

Bobby: It’s a great question. It’s a big mountain to use and take on for this but like you say, it’s the trek of Kili was to show what’s possible post donation. Does everybody who goes through donation have a perfect recovery and all of that? No, there are people who unfortunately have had some complications and most of those people it has been overlooked. And a lot of donors don’t want to talk about that. They just want to talk about nothing ever happens and you get your life back to normal and all of that. Well, I’ve met others who have not had that experience. So for me it’s really important to describe it as to show what is possible.

During COVID, people became pretty severely disconnected from others and in the KDA community there were a couple of us who tossed out an idea of let’s have an online Yahtzee tournament, just as a way to connect with others. So over Zoom we would play real Yahtzee, not virtual Yahtzee, it was competitive. And there were six of us in this tournament, we all played each other, we had playoffs, we had a championship. And I love telling my friend Jay, just reminding him who the champion of that Yahtzee tournament is so it’s always a fun little message to pass on to you Jay, so there you go.

Amanda: Do you have a trophy?

Bobby: I have a little symbol of the championship, yes. But at the conclusion of our tournament, we had a little happy hour and there was conversation of a gal who was going to go to Kili, but for various reasons that trip didn’t happen. And another participant in our Kili group, they were going to go to Kili for their 20th anniversary in the coming years and talk very quickly came around to this group going with them and supporting them and being their porters. And it was all kind of in joke and next thing you know, here we are like, yeah, we’re going to go to Kili and use the climb as this platform to shout from the mountain tops what is possible.

And so it grew from the group of six of us and we thought we should really kind of clear it by the board of KDA if we’re going to be representing them. And before you knew it, we were up to 24 people. So we had 24 of us go and we hired a videographer to document it and produce a couple of mini documentaries out of it and just fantastic experience.

Amanda: And that fun-loving and competitive athlete spirit I hear was alive and well on the mountain and you were playing games and things and the snow even when everybody else would’ve been asleep at the end of the day?

Bobby: My buddy Jay, so we carved out with an ice ax, a little game board in the dirt at our first camp and had invited others to come and participate. And some did and some were happy to hang out by their tent and whatever they needed for their time. But we had other strangers from other groups that played and participated and there were other games and little activities along the way through our eight-day trek. Just a lot of good positivity. You can imagine a group of 25, there’s varying levels of engagement that people would like and actually participate in or not. And just was a flow of eight days of whatever people wanted it to be, staying in line with our tour company in what we needed to do each day. But there was a good bit of camaraderie and joking and jesting and a good time for most.

Amanda: Yeah. I also read that your, what’s the term? The team of locals that go with you and help you and know this route like the back of their hand, that one of the sayings that they repeat a lot in Swahili is translated basically hardship without trouble, am I getting that right?

Bobby: I think so, yes.

Amanda: Because when I read that, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it because we as Americans, and dare I even say Christian Americans, have been honestly swindled by this idea that life is supposed to be easy. That if we’re doing things correctly, if we’re in God’s will, it’s supposed to be easy and that’s just not true. Read the Bible, it’s supposed to be hard. Life is hard. And to differentiate between what’s just life is hard and what’s actually trouble, I think we get so lost in there. And that’s what I love about your whole story, every step of the way is you just said, “Well, this is just hardship.” Even your bike accident, was this trouble? Was this the end of your life, something you never wanted to think about again or were you going to dive in and say, “Actually that was just hardship, I can help others out of trouble”?

Bobby: When you phrase it like that, the number one thing that rushes to the front for me is absolutely, the Tanzanian people as a whole, which is a really big broad brush to use, but we had a crew of 110 guides, porters, cooks, toilet guys who would carry the toilet, the support crew was phenomenal. I wish I could show you in your podcast the video of them dancing and singing for 15, 20, 25 minutes, chanting of joy, of just being there and walking through what you walk through as you’re trying to summit this mountain.

And when you have the opportunity to get to know some of these Tanzanians and dive into their life like I’ve had the good fortune to do, leading up to the climb and definitely in the time after, it totally blows my mind these hardships and difficulties as we would say of what their life is, yet the true joy that these people have. A lot of these people have absolutely nothing as we would look at it, but what they have is this zest for life and this beautiful framework of what I actually have, not what I don’t have, and what the challenges are more what are these opportunities. And oh my goodness, so refreshing.

And I went on a mission trip, a soccer mission trip to Swaziland two years prior, and that was my first wide opening of there’s other things going on on this planet that a lot of us don’t get the chance to see. And I was changed when I came back from Swaziland and I’m kind of drawn to the African continent because of this pure love and joy of what it is while there’s challenges and struggles and hardships, but there’s beauty through all of that. So our climb and what we all went through wrapped in love by these Tanzanian people, it’s hard to picture a scenario where there’s a better wrapping for all of it.

Amanda: And I hesitate to even bring this up, but I know that the morning that everybody got up to summit, your story and forgive me for encapsulating your story in a story of sacrifice and yet so much joy through all the sacrifice, you had to sacrifice again on this final day that you were about to summit.

Bobby: I don’t look at it like that.

Amanda: Okay.

Bobby: I look at it like it’s just what it was. I had come down with a fever a few days prior to our summit night and in 12 hours that fever had passed and I was up the next day after that initial fever passed and unfortunately people could see how I was in that 12-hour period. I like to think I’m usually fairly upbeat, fairly outgoing, and in this 12 hour period it was head down, “I don’t feel good.” I never get sick, never. And so it’s like, “Really? Now I’m going to have this after volunteering 40 to 50 hour weeks for 18 months to help plan this trip, this is what is in the cards for me?” So when it passed the next morning I was like, I’m back. I’m ready to go and just felt this pure joy, very similar to post-wrist donation.

Like, I got another chance at this. My window to summit Kili with these people, this vision of what we had, I’m still going to get to participate in that. But, as life would have it, things don’t always go as planned. And we woke up on summit night to kind of begin the push around 11 o’clock at night and we were up a couple hours before that and I was not going to make it. I was far, far deeper in the sickness throes than I had been when it appeared two days prior and I had told the guides, it’s not altitude sickness, this is a fever of sorts. I had a raging fever and over about 15 minutes they convinced me to give it a go. And we were at 15,200 feet and the summit is at 19,341, and I’ve done plenty of climbing. It was like, “4,100 feet, like three miles. I can do this, but I can’t do this the way I feel. I know my body and I know I can’t do it, but I’m going to go participate as long as I can and see what happens.”

As it turns out, where our base camp was, it was sitting down in a little gully. So to even get to the trail, we had to climb up say 150 feet or so and it took everything I had to do that. And that was confirmation for me that I was not going to make it. But I kept going and they eventually put a couple of people on either side of me, I was getting a little wobbly. And I’ve had some previous experiences. I have what they call bonked out where electrolyte levels get off balance and our bodies basically begin to shut down and that’s what was happening or a similar feeling was happening. And fortunately for me, I think I had the presence of mind there, knowing that if I stopped I could turn around and walk down. But if I kept going, this might turn into a rescue where the party might have to sacrifice some of their guides to actually carry me down, we were kind of right on the cusp of that.

And at 18,000 feet we had taken another break and I knew that was the end of it. And so I called Jay over and kind of symbolically handed the baton to him, just said, “Lead this group like you lead groups. Take them to the top.” And was like, “I can’t make it. I got to go back before it turns into more.” And when our mini water break there ended, they continued and I turned around with Stacy who bailed on her attempt to stick with me, which says a lot about who she is as a person because she would’ve made the summit and we had a guide lead us back down. It was pretty emotional. I shed a bunch of tears on the way down back to our base camp.

We passed another one in our party who was on her way up and it was super emotional and I didn’t want to show any weakness in passing her because she was in her own struggles, and I did the little bit I could to cheerlead her to carry on. And then I had probably the best moment of the entire experience for me just prior to reaching base camp, if I could share that piece.

Amanda: Sure.

Bobby: One of the porters was the most joyous, upbeat person that I’ve ever experienced in my life. And he would carry his load and run forward, get to the next camp, set up whatever he needed to, he would run back down waving his hands, “Happy-happy, happy-happy,” with the biggest smile on his face and soon it became the chant every time he would run by, we all would be, “Happy-happy, happy-happy.” And all you ever saw from this guy was smiles, upbeat energy, a can-do attitude, a full-of life-beauty that exuded throughout the mountainside. He was coming up when I was being led down and I just shared with you the smiles and the joy that he exuded everywhere.

When we locked eyes, there was none of that. There was somber, there was sadness because he instantly knew that I didn’t make it and I was being led down. And we had this embrace and Stacy took a photo of it and it’s one of my prized memories from that trip, with the sunrise coming up and we’re just locked in embrace, not speaking any words, we didn’t need to. He knew, I knew, we shared this moment that if I could plan a trip and have a moment like that and that’s all I could get, I would do it to have that experience with another human.

So even having to turn around at 18,000 feet, I didn’t get to the summit, I’m not in the summit photo. And when it’s shared around, people are like, “Where are you? I can’t tell,” because everybody’s bundled up and I’m like, “I’m not there.” But I had my experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything for the depth of love and compassion that two complete strangers on opposite sides of the world shared, just supremely beautiful.

Amanda: And the fact that the 22 in the photo would not be on top of the mountain without you. I can see in your face you don’t want to think about it that way because of who you are and yet it’s true. I mean, no one would be in that photo if it weren’t for you.

Bobby: I was in a position at that period of my life to volunteer time to help organize this, and it was a pretty massive undertaking and a lot of people participated in ways to make it come to life. And I’ve been in coaching for quite a while and you probably need somebody to steer that ship and I was in a position to kind of do that but I really look at that experience as a team. We’re each contributing what we can to make it happen.

Amanda: And the results, more than just 22 people at the summit, run us through some of the results, some of the publicity and donations and all the amazing things that came out of this trip.

Bobby: Yeah. Phenomenal, just phenomenal. The 22 donors on the trip, we couldn’t donate anymore, but could we do more? Could we collectively bring our voices and our actions together to make an impact? We thought we might be able to and we had some pie-in-the-sky dreams of live stream on the summit and broadcasting it back here to the US and all of that, and doing media pushes in the different markets where the climbers came from, and so to say we had a plan, we had a plan. And it’s a playoff baseball time here in Seattle and it felt like that was a grand slam is what it felt like. The story reached over 30 million people, we were on Good Morning America. And if you go back and look at these segments that Good Morning America does, the time that they allotted to our story far exceeds the time that they allow for most of the stories they do. And we had over 100 media outlets cover the story.

It continues in interviews like this where others will hear about this and so yeah, it was a huge success. We were able to do some tracking for those who might express an interest in seeing if they could be cleared to donate. And the last report that I heard on that was, it was in the hundreds of people who had stepped forward to see if they could be cleared to begin the process. And it takes a while to get cleared and then it takes a while to go through the whole process of getting matched and whatnot. So it still would be a while before we could actually stick a number on how many donations this trip actually brought, and we might not ever be able to do that, and it’s okay. We know the story continues to ripple as people continue to talk about it and share the story.

Amanda: And full circle to our interview here, even if all people do after hearing this story is opening the doors and smiling, you’re still putting good work out there. Every time someone turns from our selfish American ways to that human kindness, you are putting good into action.

Bobby: I believe we are and I love hearing it from fellow climbing friends. When the head of it comes to, it doesn’t have to be about kidney donation, it’s just doing good for others. Whatever anyone can do to do something for others, if this trip demonstrated that, beautiful. If it happens to be kidney donation and it helps save some lives or improve lives, beautiful. So yeah, it’s really great to, while we’re still in it, to be able to look back and see what was created, what was dreamt, what actually happened and continues to happen, it’s a good thing.

Amanda: It’s a good thing. I feel like you kind of just answered our favorite last question, but I’m going to ask it anyway because I do get surprised sometimes when I think I know exactly how someone’s going to answer. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that’s going to make the world a better place, what would you have us all do?

Bobby: I love your question and it’s going to be a question I’m going to carry with me and share with others, because I love it. And what I land on with that is a very brief, simple three-pronged answer to it. Of, one, have more patience just with everything, more patience. Along with that, more compassion. We do not know what people are going through, just more compassion. And the last one for me is more kindness. Just where we can, how we can, patience, compassion, and kindness.

Amanda: I love that, and I really see those three as building blocks. It’s almost like you can’t get to kindness without the compassion, you can’t even get to the compassion without the patience because we have to stop long enough to leave room for that.

Bobby: Yeah.

Amanda: Yeah. One absolutely leads to the other. What a great answer. Okay. Well, you’re going to take my question, I’m going to take your answer, write it on my bathroom mirror. Bobby, thank you so much. What a great interview. What a great concept to keep thinking about. The hardship without trouble, I’m going to write that on my mirror as well. So come back again, anytime. Come back with your next climb, whatever that is., Whether it’s a mountain or something else.

Bobby: Really appreciate being here and the work you do, and carry on, both of us.

Amanda: Amen. Thank you.


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