Hurdler Aries Merritt on the mend after kidney transplant

AP News
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Posted: Sep 10, 2015 3:45 AM

The narrow five-inch scar across Aries Merritt's stomach still aches from where doctors recently went in to place his new kidney. He's pretty much confined to his house these days since his immune system remains weak.

Light running? Weeks and weeks away. Training for the hurdles? December at the earliest.

And yet, for the first time in a while, Merritt can actually picture himself at the starting line for the Olympics next year in Rio de Janeiro, with a chance to defend his gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles.

Powered, of course, by that new kidney donated by his sister.

"I really feel in my heart of hearts that I'm going to be able to run something crazy now that I have a new kidney," Merritt said in a phone interview from his home in Phoenix. "I'm going to shock a lot of people."

He already has.

With his kidneys operating at about 15 percent, Merritt won the bronze medal at the world championships in Beijing two weeks ago. He had only a few days to celebrate, though, before the surgery on Sept. 1 in Arizona.

Merritt didn't let anyone know until just before worlds, but he was suffering from a rare genetic disorder that was diagnosed in 2013. For years, it turns out, his kidneys have been faltering, to the point where he ran the final at worlds on Aug. 28 at about eight pounds under his normal weight and with his kidneys barely functional.

He finished 0.01 seconds behind Hansle Parchment of Jamaica for second. Sergey Shubenkov of Russia took gold. Shubenkov didn't find out about Merritt's impending transplant until a post-race news conference. He was in awe — like everyone else.

"The outpouring of support I've received from that has been so phenomenal," the 30-year-old Merritt said. "So many people calling me the hero of Beijing, the hero of athletics."

Merritt says his energy level has already improved since receiving the kidney from his sister, LaToya Hubbard. It is filtering toxins and waste — just like a functioning kidney should.

His lab results look "really good," he proudly proclaimed.

"I can actually eat and be a normal athlete again — as soon as I recover, that is," said Merritt, who's on eight different kinds of medication to keep the kidney safe from rejection and viruses. "I took to this new kidney extremely well."

No surprise there, his sister said.

"I had the best kidney in the world," said Hubbard, who will spend another week or so recovering in Phoenix before heading back to Atlanta. "You already see a difference in Aries' face. If you were to see him, he doesn't look like he just had surgery. That's how well he looks. I see a pep in his step."

Since the valves connecting old kidneys were diseased, Merritt said his doctors went through his stomach muscles to place the new kidney near the pelvic area.

He now has three kidneys. Only the new one works.

"To take them out would've been a longer recovery," Merritt explained. "There was no point."

Merritt said there's still a chance his kidney disease could take root in the new one. It's a day-to-day process. A week into it, things appear promising.

"Every time I go in for lab work, the kidney's still doing so well," said Merritt, who's binging on television series such as "The Killing" and "Bates Motel" in his down time.

He's certainly healing quickly. It's no surprise, though. He did set the world record of 12.80 seconds in 2012, shortly after winning Olympic gold at the London Games.

The other day he went in for a checkup and was told his wounds resembled a patient who was six months removed from a transplant, not one week.

"I'm not the typical transplant. I'm an Olympian," he said. "It's working out in my favor for recovery."

His doctors are telling him that running remains another six weeks away. He doesn't want to rush things but ...

"The way I'm feeling, I think I'll be good to go in about four," Merritt said, laughing.