LTA Today: The Lundberg’s


Written by: Kari Goetz LT’18, United Way Suncoast

Before I go any further, I have a disclaimer:

I’ve had a front row seat to this story, and by front row, I mean a sweaty, out-of-breath, “sprint to the trash can,” watch the sunrise, run a 5K on Bayshore every Tuesday and Thursday at 5:30 a.m., and Sunday at 7:30 a.m., seat to this story.

I am one of the lucky few to call myself Debbie Lundberg’s (LT ‘13) Tuesday/Thursday/Sunday running buddy. It is one of the most rewarding and cherished rituals in my life. For the last six months, I have been breathless (literally and figuratively) as this story unfolded and this incredible woman pushed herself, with grit and determination from an 11:38 mile to a 8:25 mile.

But this story is not about speed, it’s about inspiration, resolve, and hope.

The Need

110,000. That’s the number of people in the U.S. on a transplant waiting list for a new kidney. According to Living Kidney, “The wait for a deceased donor could be 5 years, and in some states, it is closer to 10 years. On average, receiving a kidney transplant can double someone’s life expectancy.”  Living donors can provide faster life-saving transplants, especially if a compatible donor is recruited by the recipient. 

Enter the living donor. An altruistic person, who by relation or otherwise, voluntarily provides one of their kidneys to someone in need. The opportunity to, “share you spare,” and become a living donor is not without risk and a challenging recovery. Most people are attached to their organs, even ones that might serve as an “extra,” such as a kidney. It takes a special kind of person to decide to undertake such an operation.

The technology is not new, the first living kidney donor was in 1954, in Boston. Ronald Herrick donated a kidney to his twin brother, Richard, who had chronic kidney failure. Both lived healthy lives far longer than Richard could have expected and without complications for Ronald. Since then, tens of thousands of live donor kidney transplants have occurred in the United States. 

But who are these folks? Who willingly gives a kidney and how exactly does that happen?

Enter Debbie and Michael Lundberg.

Finding a Match

Finding a living donor match can be tricky. Often family members are a match, but not always. Recipients have found new ways to bring awareness through social media and networking groups dedicated to finding a living match. That was the case for Debra Palmer, a Seffner resident and CFO in the construction industry? Palmer posted on Facebook on a page about her chronic kidney issues and need for a transplant, and shared that page. Debbie Lundberg, who had met Debra about five years previously at one of her speaking engagements, saw the post. 

Debbie knew she was a match. “It was strange, almost unsettling and calming all at once, after having my blood drawn, with no results provided, I phoned my husband and said that while I could not explain it, I had a feeling I was Debra’s match. Michael said you’re not usually wrong about these things, and we both, somewhat quietly even in our own home, started to plan what we already accepted, planning for the donation of one of my kidneys – even if Debra, and Tampa General Hospital didn’t know it yet!” 

This is where I have to jump in and say that I have seen Debbie speak countless times. I’ve read her books (shameless plug for Remote Work Rockstar that got me through the pandemic), I read her morning Lundbergisms on Instagram, and I’ve turned to her for career coaching. I am not at all surprised about two things:

  1. That Debbie would donate a kidney to someone she barely knows
  2. That even Debbie’s blood type is positive (A+ to be exact)

It takes more than just a matching blood type and the desire to donate. Dozens of tests are required to assess the viability of the organ and the risk to the donor. Debbie is a high-achiever, she passed all her tests without issue.  On August 6, Debbie gave her kidney to Debra and the “Two Debs” were forever connected.

Debbie has had time to look back on her experience and see how life has changed for the recipient, “At more than seven months post kidney donation, it is exhilarating to know Debra and her kidney (I told her pre-surgery that the kidney would forever be hers, and promised to never call it ‘my old kidney’) are doing exceedingly well. 

“She looks and feels like someone I’d never known…and in many ways, she is. We were not friends, had never had a one-on-one until this journey, and now, we are what we call ‘kidney cousins’. Being different in generations, interests and other things, we both love our Tampa Bay community and give back, so we still do in our own ways.”

As for Debbie’s “return” to her athletic and professional activities,  “I have been thrilled to have been able to get in 26 miles each week, mostly running, with the exception of the two weeks following the surgery, as that was all walking, on my one bean. We joke that since they took my right kidney, my golf swing, as a right-handed player, has a bit more turn now! I will always have scars, and occasionally a pang of reminder of the incision and missing organ, and other than that, it’s full steam ahead…especially on Bayshore Boulevard!”

Inspiring Others

Mark Twain said, “Write what you know,” and as a motivational speaker and writer, Debbie has done just that. Her experience will be published in the book LIVING KINDLY this year. She was approached by the collaborator almost immediately after hearing of Debbie’s quick action to aid a community member. She has also become a featured athlete, active member, and mentor for Kidney Donor Athlete (KDA). As the name would suggest, selfless athletes support and encourage becoming live donors. At last count, Debbie has 8 potential donors that she is mentoring. Some live as far away as Colorado and North Carolina and all are in the process of becoming live donors. Debbie shares her story, her experience, her recovery, and her enthusiasm. It’s effective. Just ask her husband, Michael Lundberg. Michael and Debbie are both competitive…so much so that for the past 12 years of their 16 year marriage, whomever lost on the golf course that week had to mow the lawn! The tally list is a close record of wins and losses!

This is where I have to add another personal editorial: The Lundbergs’ are one of the best-looking couples I know. I have pictures of them from events. I could frame one of these photos, but people would just assume it’s the photo that came with the frame. They’re that good looking. 

I remember when Debbie told me, on a run, that Michael was considering donating. As the Division Credit Manager for CED (Consolidated Electrical Distributors), Michael has always been a respected business leader, a loving supporter of all-things-Debbie, proud dog dad to Lexi and Daisy, and a pretty darn good golfer. It was incredible news. I remember thinking it didn’t even seem real. Each week I would gain new insight into the process, the tests, and the green light for Michael’s operation. Before long, he had one kidney and his own story to tell.

Michael took a pragmatic approach, “After going through the process with Debbie, I was astonished, and saddened to learn that 13 people die each day waiting for a kidney transplant. First I thought I’d donate immediately upon retiring, and then, with the pandemic, it seemed like there was no reason not to do it now. After all, travel curtailed dramatically for work, and those thirteen people were weighing on my mind. I couldn’t save all of them, but I figured I could save one!”

Unlike Debbie, who knew her recipient, Michael chose to give his kidney without knowing who would receive it. On February 24, someone got a new chance at life, because of Michael Lundberg. Because of Debbie Lundberg. Because good people do good things.

Still recovering, it will be a while before Michael is back on the golf course. He’s managing walks around the neighborhood, wearing the surgical support wrap that helps his body adjust to the extra space left by his donated kidney (his left kidney, which is most common). He’s receiving follow up care but has had no concerning complications and will be back-to-normal in a few months. On day 16 he was released to drive. That was likely similar to when he got his first driver’s license…a sense of new-found freedom from Debbie chauffeuring him around.

Michael finds the awkwardness of not getting comfortable for very long, and the restriction of not lifting anything over 10 pounds for 6 weeks well worth the outcome for whomever got their new kidney! Plus, there must be an ounce of joy for Michael watching Debbie now mow the grass every week for a couple of months as he did for her. They’ll be back on the links soon to restart their unique contest on the course!

Two Beans Between Them

Donating a kidney is challenging under any circumstances, but during a pandemic it has presented its own issues. Visits were not allowed for Debbie and discouraged for Michael, cards have been abundant. Scores of friends signed up for Meal Trains to catch a glimpse and offer well wishes in the quick drop off of food. Soon, as things begin to go back to the “Before Times,” we will no doubt see Debbie and Michael return to the social and philanthropic world. They will be donating their time, supporting their friends and worthy causes, and inspiring others. These “one beaners” as Debbie calls them, will mentor others and continue to ensure the gift of life. Their story is unique, one of just four couples in the world I could find at time of this article, who have both been kidney donors to non-family members. They started this pandemic with four kidneys, but now four people can say their lives have been forever changed.

That’s four people, with four working kidneys among them, making Tampa better.

In a year of so much loss, it is important to focus on what has been gained.

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