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Surgical swap is a win for all

UP coach gives up
by: , CONNER

As cross country and track and field coach at the University of Portland, Rob Conner has been a giver for the past 17 years.

On Monday, though, Conner will offer the ultimate gift to benefit the ultimate recipient.

At Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, Conner will be part of a kidney transplant procedure that will give life to his mother, Shirley Conner.

'Oh my gosh, it's hard to believe anybody would do that for another person,' says Shirley, 68, who lives in Olympia, Wash. 'He's my baby. I mean, I should be taking care of him, and he's taking care of me.'

Conner's mom won't actually receive her son's kidney, which is part of the intriguing story.

Shirley Conner has polycystic kidney disease. On Dec. 11, one of her kidneys, which was abnormally large, was surgically removed. Since then, she has been on dialysis.

Rob Conner volunteered to donate a kidney to his mother, but the two aren't a match.

Then came word from doctors of a Seattle woman who needed a kidney. Her husband wasn't a match, but as fate would have it, he is a match for Shirley Conner, and Rob Conner is a match for the wife.

A swap was arranged: The man will donate for Shirley, and Rob will donate for his wife.

'In my opinion, it's the same thing as giving a kidney to my mom,' says Rob, 43. 'It's a roundabout way of getting my mom better.'

Conner, the reigning west region coach of the year after guiding the Pilots to 14th place at the NCAA cross country championships, feels he's in perfect position to serve as a donor. A recent change to a vegan diet (no meat, no dairy) has trimmed 15 pounds from his 5-10 frame to drop him to 145, his college weight.

Sunday, running in his first marathon in 14 years, Conner finished 30th overall and fifth in his age group in a field of more than 5,000 in the California International Marathon at Sacramento. His time of 2 hours, 39 minutes, 53 seconds was just three minutes off his career best.

'It's making me feel like a vegan superman,' Conner says with a chuckle. 'That's part of the motivation for donating the kidney. This diet can turn back the clock for anybody. I'm out to prove that being vegan is the greatest thing ever.'

Shirley Conner says the prospect of dialysis was more scary than the upcoming surgery.

'It's not been easy, but it's getting better,' says Shirley, who will end the dialysis Saturday. 'Now my arm is used to the process.'

Rob Conner admits to feeling some apprehension.

'About one donor in 3,000 dies during anesthesia,' he says. 'That's the only thing that scares me a little bit, but I assume my health would put me in the 100th percentile of anyone undergoing anesthesia. They do enough screening (of donors) to know I'm not in any projection for failure.'

Conner's two young children 'are focused on the positive aspects of this,' he says. His wife, Gwen, 'was initially the most concerned, the most cautious about it. But she's comfortable about it now. She knows how important it is.'

Conner is told that within four or five weeks, he can resume running. Doctors expect his quality of life to remain the same.

Those within the UP athletic family are proud of Conner.

'I have this saying I use all the time,' Athletic Director Larry Williams says. ' 'Boy, I wish I could take the DNA from men's cross country and women's soccer and impart that on all of our other programs.' The reality of this is, Rob is actually giving away some of his DNA now.

'But Rob has a huge heart. It does not surprise me in the least he's willing to give a body part to a loved one.'

Conner says it was an easy call.

'Who more to do something lifesaving for than your mother?' he asks. 'There's not a single person who beats that list.

'I guess you could call it the ultimate Mother's Day card.'

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