BRISTOL, R.I. -- Throughout this summer, Ken Castro has been a regular participant in New England Masters Track and Field meets as he competes in sprints and jumps in the 55-59 age group.
Just over one year ago, he was competing for something entirely different: his life.
Castro, who resides in Bristol, R.I., is the boys’ and girls’ cross-country and track and field coach at his high school alma mater, Bishop Connolly in Fall River, Mass. On May 24, 2010, he underwent a successful kidney transplant operation. And because he was in excellent physical condition he was pronounced “a perfect candidate for a transplant.”
“[Transplant] is a scary word when you hear it,” said Castro, who played Division III baseball for the now-defunct Hawthorne College in New Hampshire, traveled all over the country (and spent one summer in Italy) competing in bicycle racing for nine years (in 1982, he qualified for the U.S. Nationals) and, at age 30, segued into Masters track.
He added, “When I was put on the recipient list, I was told I was a perfect candidate because of my athletic background. My doctors said if I wasn’t involved in athletics for all those years, I probably wouldn’t have made it.”
Because of his physical condition, Castro didn’t need much to tell him something was amiss as 2006 morphed into 2007.
“I was vomiting frequently … I couldn’t hold anything down,” he said. “The whole thing goes with feeling tired … I was sleeping all day. When I had my physical, the blood work showed that at first one kidney wasn’t functioning and then later on the other also wasn’t functioning.
“The lab work showed I had too much protein in my blood. When that happens, the first thing they check is your kidneys. That’s when they found they weren’t functioning well. I know my body well from training all those years so I could tell something wasn’t right.”
Then one night during the summer of 2008, he felt so ill that he went to a walk-in clinic in Barrington, R.I., where he had more blood work.
“They found the creatinine (a waste product of muscle energy metabolism which is filtered by kidneys) in my blood was 10.5 and I basically was a dead man walking.”
Considering the normal range for a male adult is between 0.6 to 1.2 milligrams per decileter, he wasn't that far off.
“I got a call, was told to go to a hospital right now and they performed surgery that night and put a catheter in my chest,” said Castro.
The next step was to go on dialysis -- for three hours a day, three times a week -- for two years. Yet, during that time, he continued to coach the Cougars.
After that, it was a matter of finding a person who was a perfect match so he could undergo a transplant. His wife, JoAnn, was the first to be tested. But because she had skin cancer at one time, she was removed from the list of potential donors.
“When you’re on dialysis, you feel like ‘I’ll take it,’” said Castro.
Castro then became “proactive." He started surfing the internet and talking with people about his condition.
Enter Ann Tessier Lundeen, who used to live in Massachusetts but now resides in Arizona and whose mother lives on Cape Cod. Castro and Lundeen met through a mutual friend during one of Lundeen’s trips to visit her mother.
“She said ‘Let’s see if I match,’” Castro said. “This was in January of 2010 and every step [of the process] showed she was a perfect match.
“I bypassed the (donor) list. The chances of this happening were infinitesimal.”
After the operation, Castro basically was on home confinement for three months.
“If I went out with people, I had to wear a mask because your immune system is off,” he said. “Any germ can ruin the kidney.”
After another three months, Castro was given clearance by his physician, Dr. Paul Morrissey of Barrington, to resume training. As a result, last June he competed in the World Transplant Games in Goteborg, Sweden. There he participated in the javelin, the long jump and the 100-meter dash for his age group. Castro is 55.
“I wasn’t in top form when I went there,” admitted Castro. “But the Games were coming so you take one chance and you go. Once I returned home and began competing in the Masters meets, I wasn’t expecting to do very well because I was competing against able-bodied people. At one time, I was ranked in the top 13 in my age group … maybe over-40.
“Nobody in their right mind expects you to do this. But I hope to do as best as I can and go to more transplant games.”
Castro plans to compete in the Virginia Transplant Games in Richmond come October 1 and, if all goes well, the U.S. Transplant Games in Grand Rapids, Mich.; next year, the Canadian Transplant Games in Calgary, Alberta; and, eventually, the 2013 World Transplant Games in South Africa.
“One thing I learned from many of the others on the [U.S.] team while in Sweden is no story is negative if it inspires someone who is on dialysis go get through their day by fostering a sliver of hope,” Castro said. “I also learned this could lead to someone becoming aware of and actually signing a donor card that leads to a donation.”
Castro also learned something else during the first time he underwent dialysis.
“My doctor said if you have a negative thought, you won’t be around very long,” he said. “You have to be proactive and find any person who can help you to get a kidney.
“What helped me was being positive and not letting any negative thoughts get into my mind, which can be very destructive. Plus, you must have faith and hope.”