Homewood man to have kidney transplant thanks to running buddy

  Mike Blake, left, volunteered to donate a kidney 
  to his long-time running team partner, Rich 
  Matula of Homewood.
(Provided Photo)
 
On Jan. 9, 2017, Mike Blake of New Lenox was being tested to see if he might be a candidate for donating one of his kidneys to his running buddy, Richard Matula of Homewood.
 
On Jan. 9, 2018, Blake and Matula will enter the hospital and by the end of the day, Blake will be down one kidney and Matula will receive the transplant he needs to deal with his body’s dwindling kidney function due to a heredity disease.
 
The duo met about 20 years ago at a wedding. Matula was getting started as a runner and Blake told him about a running group he was involved in, Tinley Track and Trail Running Club. Soon they were running together in the club — and often competing against each other in races because they are in the same age bracket. Both are now 53. A few years later, Matula took over as coach of the running club.
 
Around the time he started coaching the club, Matula was diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease. 

“It’s a progressive disease where cysts grow on your kidneys and take away kidney function,” Matula said. “I’ve had no symptoms until the last five years.”
 
Those symptoms have mainly been fatigue (anemia is a common consequence), which he noticed was significantly slowing him down as a runner. 

“About three years ago, it got way worse. My function went down to about 20 percent and I sent a message out to the other runners letting them know I was going to need some help coaching.”
 
In that email he mentioned that he might not be able to do long runs with the club and was hoping other people could step up and help. 

“He said that he had a kidney disease and down the road he might need a transplant,” Blake said.
 
Blake didn’t realize that Matula was nearing the point where the next step was to get his name on the transplant list and once on the waiting list in the Chicago area, it could be six or seven years for a kidney to become available.
 
Matula’s kidney function was at about 22 percent at that point. The threshold for being added to the transplant list is 20 percent. 
 
However, the conversation did plant a seed — a big enough seed that Blake asked his family how they would feel about him donating a kidney, and he did some online research about the process.
 
A year later, Blake called Matula for some running advice. During the phone call Blake asked about the condition of Matula’s kidney. He was very surprised to hear that his kidney function had dipped down to 16 percent and he’d already been on the transplant list for a year. Without a transplant, dialysis would be inevitable.
 
“I had no idea. No one in the running club knew. He never complained,” Blake said. “I respect him as a person and he’s been a really good friend, so when I found out he may need a kidney, I looked it up to see what it entailed and I was kind of holding out to see if he needed it. I did some research and decided it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.”
 
Besides wanting to help his good friend, he also was hoping to make a difference in the life of someone. 

“My wife was a day care provider and to this day kids come up and tell her how much she affected their life. I thought that was so special to affect someone in a positive way that isn’t related to you. I was kind of envious,” he said. “I’m an accountant. I’ve never had an opportunity to have that kind of impact on the life of someone else outside my family. So that influenced me a little bit, too. It is a good feeling.”
 
Matula said he couldn’t see asking anyone to make such a huge sacrifice and he was both surprised and immensely grateful when Blake offered to be tested and see if he’d be a candidate to donate. Testing showed that Blake was a match.
 
“I was pretty shocked and kind of humbled,” Matula said. “It’s an amazing sacrifice. He’s perfectly healthy and for him to do that is a great gift.” 
 
The next step was a huge battery of tests for Blake — more than a dozen vials of blood, cardiac testing, X-rays, a colonoscopy — to ensure that he was healthy enough to donate his kidney. He passed with flying colors, and the surgery was scheduled.
 
Blake was lucky to have a very supportive employer, Henry Crown & Company in Chicago, and co-workers who have been behind his decision and celebrated him with cake and a little gathering before the surgery.
 
“It’s kind of cool,” Matula said. “(Mike) got me on the running team. Then I coached him. Now it’s come full circle. And if we hadn’t met that way, this wouldn’t be happening.”
 
At the start of this year, Matula said he was at about 10 or 11 percent kidney function and about six months away from needing dialysis. This gift from his running buddy will literally be a lifesaver. 

Matula said he wasn’t particularly surprised by the diagnosis, even though he wasn’t suffering from any symptoms at the time. It’s hereditary and his father has the same condition. 

“There’s was 50/50 chance I’d get it. And there’s a 50/50 chance my son may have it,” he said.
 
Following recovery of about six to eight weeks, Blake said that his kidney function will steadily increase and probably max out around 80 to 85 percent with no increased risk of kidney failure. 

He should be back to running soon. 

He’s already registered for the Chicago marathon in October. It will be his 25th marathon. 
 
The reduction in Matula’s kidney function has slowed him down considerably, but he never stopped running. He ran a marathon in 2007 with his kidney function at 30 percent. 

“Each year I’ve gotten slower. I used to be one of the fastest on my team and could run 10 to 12 miles no problem. Now I’ve been lucky to finish three at a slow pace,” he said.
 
Following surgery, Matula will be taking it easy and not doing any lifting for a couple months, but he hopes to start up running again in the spring. He’ll be on anti-rejection medication for the rest of his life and will have to be careful to avoid infection as he’ll have a compromised immune system. 

If all goes well, he’ll continue adding to his list of more than 500 races that he’s run as an adult.
 
Blake hopes that when others hear about their story, they might consider being a live donor themselves. 

“It’s not as scary as it initially seems, and I encourage others to think about it,” he said. “I’d definitely like that to get out. I haven’t done it yet, so I can’t say it’s no big deal, but it’s scary at first until you really look at it. It shouldn’t affect your quality of life much and it improves theirs so much.”
 

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