Back in January 2019, right in the heart of the hockey season, Saint Anselm head coach Kerstin Matthews had a meeting with one of her team captains, Amanda Conger. It wasn’t your typical mid-season conversation between coach and player, though.
Conger had some news to share that eclipsed anything that might happen inside a hockey rink.
“I thought I owed it to her to tell her,” Conger said. “So I went into her office one day and told her that I was in the process of donating my kidney.”
At the time, Conger was fifth on the team in scoring, a leader both on and off the ice for a Hawks squad that was well on its way to the New England Women’s Hockey Alliance championship. But Matthews’ first thoughts were not about how Conger’s decision would affect her hockey team.
“Your initial thought is, as a human being, how this is going to affect her life?” Matthews said. “And she never thought of that.
“To use the words she restored my faith in mankind...it was just amazing.”
The previous summer, Conger was interning at Thunder Road, a stock car race track near her home in Vermont. It was one of those internship positions that didn’t have a fitting title—she did a little of everything around the track.
One car always stuck out to her: Cameron Ouellette’s. It was bright pink, in a show of support for breast cancer awareness.
During the middle of the season, though, that bright pink car stopped showing up. The official word later on was that Ouellette was dealing with something extremely difficult health-wise and wouldn’t be returning to race.
Conger didn’t learn the seriousness of Ouellette’s condition—or even that she might be able to help him—until she was back at Saint Anselm for her junior year.
“I was scrolling on Facebook, and I saw that he put out a plea that he had stage five kidney disease, and if anyone that was reading the post had any interest in becoming an organ donor, to request the packet of information,” she said.
Before seeing Ouellette’s Facebook post, Conger had no personal experiences with organ donation. No one in her family or any close friends had ever gone through it, either as a donor or a recipient. But her older brother, Matt, had once donated bone marrow to a stranger.
After watching her brother do so much for someone in need, Conger knew she wanted to help someone in the same way, if she was ever given the opportunity.
“When I saw Cameron’s post, I just thought, ‘I think this is my chance,”’ she said. “‘I don’t think I’ll be his donor, but I should at least try.’”
Conger had a long chat with her parents about what it would mean to actually donate her kidney, and by the end of that conversation, she decided she wanted to go through with it. She called up the UVM Medical Center to request more information about becoming a donor for Ouellette.
She received a call in early January, when the Hawks were on the road in Minnesota for a pair of games, that the UVM transplant team wanted to move forward with her as a donor. At that point, she went to her coach to let her know she was going to be donating her kidney.
It was not news Matthews was expecting to get, because, well, who would? But at the same time, she wasn’t exactly shocked to hear it from Conger.
“She’s always sort of had that opinion of, ‘I’ve been given so much, and so I should take advantage of everything I’ve been given to be thankful and grateful for what I have,’” Matthews said of Conger. “I think she really lives her life that way, not just in what she did for this particular story. But in general, I think that’s how she lives her life, whether it’s helping someone else or giving up herself so that someone else can benefit.”
For Conger, she knew there was a chance she might not return to play her senior season after the surgery. She decided not to tell the whole team at that point, because she didn’t want it to be a distraction going into the NEWHA playoffs. Mostly, she wanted to be proud of the last games she played as a junior in case they were the last of her career.
In her last two games that year, she scored three goals and seven points and helped Saint Anselm to the 2019 NEWHA Tournament championship.
After the season was over, Conger went through some pretty rigorous testing to make sure she was the right fit for kidney donation. That consisted of a lengthy interview process with the entire transplant team at UVM.
Conger says it almost felt like they were trying to discourage her from donating her kidney. Had she thought about what would happen if Ouellette’s body rejected the kidney? Had anyone pressured her into this decision or promised her something in return?
But really, that team of specialists was just there to advocate for her own wellbeing throughout the process, and make sure the surgery would be as beneficial for her as it was for Ouellette.
“They pretty much said giving your kidney is the easy part. But it’s the month after, the three months after, the six months after,” Conger said. “How are you going to focus if you’re at school or learning how to train again? How will my body and my mental state be able to keep up? Athletes are trained to push themselves, but I could only lift five pounds. So is that something I’ll be able to do without hurting myself and wanting to lift more?”
She also had to think about how she’d feel about Ouellette getting back in a race car after going through with the surgery. Would that sit well with her?
“It didn’t matter to me because I just wanted to get Cameron back to his normal life and doing something he loves, and he loves race cars,” Conger said. “So if he’s going to go back in one, then that’s great.”
In the end, the conclusion the team came to was a firm “yes”—they wanted to move forward with her. At UVM’s transplant center, though, the policy is to have donors under the age of 24 wait three months before transplant surgery, just to be absolutely sure they want to go through with it.
There was no hesitation for Conger. Once the three months were up, she called to schedule the surgery. The date was set for June 11, 2019, a Tuesday. The Friday before, she met Ouellette at Thunder Road and told him for the first time that she was his donor.
The track’s owner, Chris Michaud, walked her over to Ouellette’s race trailer. Both of their families were there.
“Chris gave a little speech and he was like, ‘Cameron, do you want to meet your donor?’ And then pointed to me,” Conger said. “And then the tears came and I was hugging everyone, and I couldn’t stop crying because I was just so excited to finally tell them. Earlier that day, I put a wristband on Cameron and his family and just said, ‘See you later.’ They had no clue it was me.”
The following week, they underwent the surgery. The transplant went smoothly for both of them, though Ouellette had to stay in the hospital for a little while longer.
Afterward, Conger says it was strange looking at the scars on her body, knowing that she was perfectly healthy the entire time and the surgery wasn’t necessary for her. But it helped her put things into perspective when she would go visit Ouellette in the hospital.
“Going in to see Cameron, I realized no, I obviously had a surgery for a reason. I gave an organ to somebody,” she said. “I think seeing him was really the part that was amazing, to know that I had an impact on someone’s life.”
Despite not being able to lift more than five pounds after the surgery, Conger made it all the way back to the Hawks’ lineup for opening night back in the fall. She played in all but one game this season for Saint Anselm.
If you talk to her about it, you might get the impression that such a comeback is no big deal. But as her coach, Matthews recognizes how difficult it was for Conger to be able to make it back to the ice—and keep playing throughout her entire senior season.
“You watch other athletes struggle with an athletic injury, something that happened because of the love of the game, and they struggle and they battle to stay in it,” Matthews said. “And here’s a kid who did something so selfless, and then went through a really hard recovery behind closed doors. Nobody’s there to see that part.
“You could physically see the fatigue on her. That, to me, is the most impressive part in some regards to the story, because there was never a part of her that said, ‘I wish I hadn’t.’”
In fact, throughout the entire process, from when she first called up UVM Medical Center to now, Conger’s conviction never wavered. Even before she was number one on Ouellette’s transplant list, she was sure that she was going to donate her kidney to him.
Matthews notes that’s just slightly out of her character for Conger. During her four years at Saint Anselm, Matthews has come to know her as someone who listens intently and then thinks on it before making any decisions, instead of just reacting.
“I think some kids now are a little bit more reactive and impulsive,” Matthews said. “I find Amanda to be a little bit more thoughtful and really make sure that she does what she wants.”
But when Conger came to her and let her know that she was going through this process, she was so sure that she wanted to do it. Matthews recalls being a little reserved the first time they spoke about it. She was supportive of Conger’s decision no matter what, but she also wanted to make sure that for someone who’d always been so deliberative, she’d thought through all of the possible consequences.
So the next time they spoke about it, Matthews dug in a little deeper.
“I said, ‘Amanda, I just want to make sure you’ve thought this through. I support you. But what if you have kids someday and they need a kidney?’” Matthews said. “She looked at me and didn’t even hesitate and said, ‘Coach, someone would do this for them.’”
Donating an organ is probably something that would be considered a daunting experience to most people. Giving it to someone you hardly even know is perhaps even more so. It takes a giant leap of faith to give up so much of yourself and trust that down the road, someone, maybe even a stranger, will give it right back if you need it.
In that sense, Conger’s story is less about the impact we can have by making a sacrifice for someone else, and more about how much greater that impact can be when we believe simply, unquestioningly, in the good in other people, and that they’ll always return the same.
In honor of Conger’s incredible selflessness, she was named the winner of the 2020 Hockey Humanitarian Award. The award is given annually to one NCAA hockey player, men’s or women’s, who embodies values such as personal character, scholarship, and the giving of oneself off the ice.
Conger is quick to pass off recognition to those around her for winning this award.
“Every mentor and every coach that I’ve had, I like to think they shaped me into the player that I am and the person that I am,” she said. “So I think winning this award more so is a reflection of the people around me. I hope that I made my community proud and my parents proud and my past coaches, because it’s obviously not just me. It’s not just an individual effort.”
The recipient of the Hockey Humanitarian Award is also gifted with $2,500 to donate to the charity of their choice. Conger will donate hers to Donate Life Vermont. She hopes, above all, that her story will educate others on the importance of organ donation and inspire them to consider becoming a donor themselves.
With that mindset, she’s already undoubtedly left a mark on her teammates and the program at Saint Anselm going forward.
“Seeing the way the girls responded, seeing other things that I think girls have decided to do, whether it be volunteering or giving of themselves in a different way, has been a great example for everyone,” Matthews said. “We all have to lead and be who we are in our own personality. I think Amanda has helped people challenge themselves a little bit to realize that they can give more, and it just might be in a different way.”