My Life With a Kidney Transplant

Three years ago, John Sica, 13, got an amazing gift from his cousin that saved his life. Here’s his story.

Photography by Michael Weschler

I was born in October, but every June 3 my family celebrates my life with a special dinner and a cake. No, I didn’t decide to change my birthday. That June celebration is my “kidneyversary.” It marks the day when a new kidney was transplanted into my body.

My name is John, and I’m one of the more than 40,000 people in the country who get the lifesaving gift of an organ transplant each year. 

I’m really lucky to have gotten my kidney, especially since I was just 9 years old when I got it. Thousands of kids are currently on waiting lists for donated organs.  

An organ transplant is a major surgery that changes your life forever. Want to know what my life is like—and what I tell people about my scar? Read on.

John shows off his water supply.

Startling Discovery

Kidneys are really important organs. They help filter toxins out of your blood, and they make vitamins that help you grow. I was born with a disease that affected my kidneys, but my family didn’t know I had it until I was about 5 years old. That was when a test at a checkup showed that my kidneys weren’t working right. I started taking medication for my disease. Then, when I was 9, I got really sick, and the doctors told my parents I needed a new kidney as soon as possible. 

Perfect Match

Most people are born with two kidneys, but the human body can survive with just one. That means you can give someone one of yours. When we learned I needed a kidney, everyone in my family immediately offered to give me one of theirs. That showed me how much my family cares about me. 

To be an organ donor, you need to have the same type of blood and white blood cells as the person receiving the organ. My mom and dad were the first people to get tested, but they weren’t a match. I have siblings, but they were too young. My cousin Allie, who was 24, was the first person other than my parents to get tested. It turned out she was a match! 

Healing Time

Allie and I had our operations at a hospital in New York City, near where I live on Long Island. The surgeons took out both of my kidneys and gave me one of Allie’s. The surgery took nine hours. (Allie’s surgery was a few hours.) 

I was in the hospital for 10 days. When I came home, I slept on a hospital bed in my living room because I wasn’t strong enough to climb the stairs to my bedroom. I was in a lot of pain too. It took about nine months before I could go back to doing regular activities. Allie’s recovery was quicker—she went to a wedding just a week after our surgeries.

Reality Check

Because I was so young, I didn’t realize how serious my situation was until after my surgery, when people were telling me how brave I was. When I asked my mom about it, she explained it was a big deal and that I could have died. Looking back, I’m glad I had the surgery when I was younger. If I understood things the way I do now, I would have been much more hesitant and scared. 

Now that I understand my life was at risk, I never take anything for granted anymore. I know it could all be gone in a snap. And I’m so grateful to Allie. We were close before, but the surgery made us closer. She’s has a degree in psychology, and I joke that I hope I got some of her brains along with her kidney.

Mark of Distinction 

I have a big, straight scar on my abdomen. I never try to hide it. It’s a badge of courage. Sometimes I joke that I got attacked by a shark. When I tell people the actual story, they usually have a lot of questions, especially about the surgery. I don’t mind talking about it. Some people don’t even seem to notice my scar, though, and that’s also fine with me. 

New Normal

To keep my kidney working well, I take medication that keeps my body from thinking the kidney is something that could hurt me. If that were to happen, my body could attack the kidney, and I would likely need to get another transplant. 

I have to drink 3 to 4 liters of water a day to keep my kidney functioning properly. That’s a lot of water! I also go back to the hospital a few times a year to make sure I’m still healthy. 

Playing It Safe

I used to play basketball and football, but now I’m not allowed to do any contact sports because I can’t risk having my kidney injured. People’s kidneys are usually near their backs, so they’re protected by the spine and back muscles. But because Allie is an adult, her kidney was too big to fit in the usual place. The doctors put it in the front of my body, where it is more vulnerable to getting hurt. I can still play baseball and soccer, and my friends and I ride bikes together. We even wrestle with each other, but they’re careful and know the area to avoid. 

Words of Wisdom

My advice to anyone facing a big surgery or health issue like mine is to remember that any pain you have to deal with will lead to less pain in the future. And if anyone is interested in becoming an organ donor, I think you should do it. It’s the best gift you can give. I can personally guarantee you it feels great on the recipient side too!

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