As a senior at St. Anselm in New Hampshire, Amanda Conger has always taken the Benedictine principles of distinguishing one’s life with meaning, leadership and achievement to heart each every day as a student, hockey team captain and this year as an organ donor.
The ultimate gift and selfless act are not something Amanda has ever sought recognition for but now embraces the opportunity to build a needed growing community for organ donation and support of kidney disease awareness.
She will have that platform as the 2020 recipient of the Hockey Humanitarian Award.
“I was astounded when my coach nominated me for the Hockey Humanitarian Award,” said a humbled Conger. “After speaking with a couple of representatives with the committee since and hearing about the multitudes of work others have done, I don’t know that my actions meet that level, but I didn’t donate a kidney to get recognized. I have very strong feelings about all kinds of organ and tissue donation that I think started when my older brother, Matt, donated bone marrow two years ago. I really thought that was a wonderful thing to be a match and being able to help someone find a cure and have a healthy life from something that he had the ability to give.
“My teammates still give me some grief for asking them to be part of the Be the Match program when they did a registration event on campus last year, but it just felt like a cause I wanted to be a part of. Later I saw Cameron Ouellette (a future kidney recipient) had put out a plea on the internet for donors, asking interested parties to reach out for an information packet, and I think that is where the process for me really got started.”
That process, which started out during Conger’s junior season with the Hawks, extended into the summer with the actual transplant surgery and continued with her final season of hockey at St. A’s and a burgeoning relationship with her organ recipient and the organ donation community.
“It’s not a short or easy process,” Conger said. “I requested the information packet and then submitted to some testing, figuring that even if I wasn’t a good match, I had tried to help someone. When the results came back as a match, I was excited and anxious about what would happen next. Growing up in a small town in Vermont, you learn to be there for friends and neighbors, and while I didn’t really know the person in need of my kidney, I was ready to donate one of mine to help Cameron live his life.
Conger said the process was a little strange in that she came to know the person in need of the transplant but that he and his family were not allowed to know who the possible donor was until a certain point in the process prior to the actual surgery.
“During the summer, I worked at a local stock car racetrack doing a number of jobs including checking in drivers, friends and family into the facility at the gate,” Conger said. “I actually met Cameron and his family there since he was a driver and they would talk about finding a donor, and hearing about a match and then eventually a planned time to meet the actual donor. It was a little surreal since I knew the whole time but couldn’t tell anyone until the screening process was complete.”
There were additional tests, blood work and an interview panel for Conger to navigate before the surgery was finally approved and scheduled. That process evolved over the balance of her junior hockey season and the surgery finally occurred in the summer of 2019.
“The hardest part was going through the interview session with the transplant team at the University of Vermont Medical Center,” said Conger. “They asked some really hard questions that seemed like they were trying to discourage me and many were the same questions phrased differently by different members of the team. I realized that I could be the perfect match but that didn’t mean I was the right donor. I knew then the transplant team was concerned about me and my future after doing this and that just reinforced everything for me going forward as a donor.”
Conger met Ouellette officially and the surgery was successfully completed last summer. After a brief concern about organ rejection, both patient and donor are doing well and now have bonded through their shared organ and Ouellette’s recovery to good kidney function. They speak on average twice a week and Conger relishes the interactions with her new extended family.
“It was hard coming back from the surgery and trying to get ready for the hockey season,” said Conger. “I think I was only able to lift about five pounds post-operatively when my teammates were going through full pre-season workout. We modified my program and I got back on the ice to start the season wearing a BMX-style protective vest to cover my back area and protect me from contact. It took me a little while to not think about it but I got there pretty quickly and now I only think about it when I see the scar.”
While her last hockey season is in the books, Conger is not stepping away from continued activities in the kidney health awareness space, promotion of the game of hockey or support for other endeavors she supported as a player at St. Anselm.
“I have talked to my coach about doing a game for kidney health and awareness next season,” Conger said. “We couldn’t make it happen this year but I would really love to create some uniforms with the bright, lime green color for a game next year on campus and get the word out on the value of all organ donation, not just kidney donation. I am probably going back to my small town in Vermont where I hope to continue these efforts as well as help coach youth hockey and grow a declining base of players for the girls game. I know I will continue to drive awareness in the organ donation space and will also try to continue to grow a sport that I have loved playing since I was 4 years old.”