Olympian Donates Kidney to Brother

From Washington Post

Melissa Schwen, 24, the Georgetown University graduate who won a silver medal in rowing with partner Karen Kraft at the Olympics last month, was resting at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago Thursday after successfully donating a kidney to her critically ailing brother Michael, 30, on Wednesday.

The siblings underwent three-hour operations to make the switch, with doctors taking care to do as little damage to Melissa’s abdominal muscles as possible in case she chooses to row again, which seems likely.

“If I were betting, I’d say Missy would be out there again” at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, said her father, Tom, by telephone from Chicago. “I think we’d have to hold her down with an anchor. She’s pretty focused on her goals and she has some unfinished business with the gold medal.”

Schwen and Kraft were second in the tightest finish of any rowing event in the Games, finishing three-tenths of a second behind the Australian team of Megan Still and Kate Slatter, whom they had beaten in semifinals.


Thursday Schwen was in a different world, resting in bed after giving new life to her brother, a research scientist and doctoral candidate at Northwestern who has been ill with degenerative kidney disease for five years and critical for the last six months. Thursday Michael, who was married in May, made the short walk from his room to hers, where she presented him with a get-well card that sent his chin to his chest.

When the silver medalist went to the White House with other Olympians early this month, her father explained, she asked President Clinton, a fellow Georgetown alumnus, to sign a card to her brother in advance of the operation. “She kept it a surprise till now,” said Tom Schwen. “He was pretty dumbfounded.”

Melissa’s sister Sarah, an Air Force officer, was originally slated to provide the donor organ for the operation, said Tom Schwen, but final tests indicated her kidneys were not as good a match as Melissa’s. “We knew on the day of the Olympic final that we’d probably have to switch,” he said. “We revealed it to her over the next few days and gave her a couple of weeks to decide.

“There was never any doubt. She wanted to do it right away, but we and the transplant team told her to take a couple of weeks” to be sure, since it could impact her athletic future.


“I’m prouder of my kids about this donor business than about the Olympics,” said Tom Schwen, “and I’m awfully proud of that.”

Kraft said doctors told her partner she can regain full rowing form as long as she doesn’t rush the recovery. “The surgeons and the USOC (Olympic)-affiliated doctors all told her as long as she doesn’t do anything silly she won’t build up extra scar tissue and she’ll be able to resume rowing. But she has to take it slowly -- I think they said two months.”