Written By Alisha Hiebert

Willow Pill is a drag superstar who got her start in Denver, Colorado, before moving to Chicago, Illinois, where she currently resides. As a fan of drag, Willow is currently living the dream as a drag performer herself, and you may recognize her adorable, twisted and quirky drag from season 14 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. 

life after kidney transplant

But here’s something you might not know about Willow: she’s also a transplant recipient. Diagnosed with cystinosis, a rare, genetic disease categorized by abnormal buildup of the amino acid cystine, Willow always knew she would one day need a kidney transplant. Cystinosis can result in a buildup of crystals, which might result in blockages in the eyes, affecting the liver, and causing myopathy and muscular atrophy in the body.

At 13, Willow reached the point of kidney failure. As her family began testing to determine who would be the best match, Willow began hemodialysis. After a year of dialysis, Willow’s brother was determined to be the best match, and she received a kidney transplant from him in March of 2010. 

A few years later, Willow began her drag career by performing in a student drag show at the age of 21. Drag is an outlet for the queer and transgender community, and Willow is no exception. However, what she didn’t realize going into drag was how much it would help her express not only her queerness, but her health issues, as well. 

“When you’re young, you don’t realize the effect this will all have on you,” Willow said, referencing her lifelong experiences in the medical world. “You don’t realize the medical PTSD that’s there.”

Having battled illness her entire life, Willow came to terms with the fact that her life would never be “normal.” 

“You end up grieving yourself,” Willow said when I asked her about how growing up with a genetic illness changed her. “You’re stuck between being alive and being dead.”

Drag helped her come to terms with her illness and transplant status. Even more so than being queer, her drag has been shaped by her experiences of loss and death. In a life marked by so much pain, from illness to transplant surgery, familial death to contending with being queer, drag became essential.

“It tethered me to being alive, to something that had so much joy and life in it,” Willow said. 

Just watch a Willow Pill show and you’ll see her ability to turn trauma into something enjoyable to watch. She said she’s always had a gift for finding humor in awful things in order to reclaim her power. 

Willow is now thriving as a transplant recipient. Despite bumps in the road, there have been no major complications and Willow and her medical team are hopeful for her future.

I asked her what she wanted to share with our community, and she was quick to say that life won’t look like the movies. But means of joy and celebration should, and can, still exist. The old dream of life is gone, but there is confidence and joy living outside of what that dream was. That’s why Willow is such an advocate about living life post-transplant. She wants others to know that thriving with your diagnosis is possible, and that life is meant to be celebrated.

We always knew this queen had a little bit of a sparkle in her eyes. You can find Willow Pill on this season of RuPaul’s Drag Race, streaming now on VH1, on instagram @willowpillqueen or on her website willowpill.com.

As an experienced writer and nutrition coach, I am also a breast cancer survivor and mom of two teen boys. 

In addition to seeing clients in both person and remote, I have worked in the corporate world in publishing, editorial and marketing for over 30 years across health and wellness. I have been the editor & publisher of a successful parenting website and blog for over a decade, covering health and wellness topics for local parents, as well as writing about healthy dining options for other local news outlets and promoting healthy products and brands. Previously I managed marketing and social media for a men’s skincare company, doing campaigns related to men’s physical and mental health awareness. I am also the former communications manager for Oxford Health. With a son who has Celiac disease, I am also currently writing a book about living with gluten intolerance.

I would love to use my experience and knowledge to help others navigate their health journey at various stages of life, especially cancer survivors.

Kelly is a Stroke Survivor, functional fitness coach and Wife & mom of 2. In 2010 at the age of 32, Kelly survived a Stroke. At the time she lacked any physical routine, was a smoker and was severely overweight. Once ashamed of her Stroke, Kelly now advocates and uses her story to help educate others in not only Stroke awareness, but mental health and body positive movements. A Size Strong is Kelly Fucheck’s honest and open mission to raise awareness & provide information and wellness programs for all. Through her company, Kelly has been featured on TV, local radio, area publications, National Magazines and she provides public speaking engagements. Kelly currently co-hosts the Podcast Unfiltered Survivors with her best friend Amanda DeJesus where they provide a creative, unfiltered space for candid chats about health and more. The podcast also features many guests sharing survivor and/or impactful stories. Kelly serves as a National Stroke Ambassador for American Heart Association & American Stroke Association and volunteers with Wisdo and American Heart Association. She welcomes sharing her continued wellness journey with you all.

Connie Rose Shearer (pronouns: they/them/theirs) is an HIV and Mental health advocate who early in their advocacy became an online blogger for A Girl Like Me, a blog site hosted by The Well Project, as an outlet and source of support. Connie has 25 years of lived experience as a person living with HIV, and more than 3 decades successfully navigating their mental health pathway. They have more than a decade of service to the local and national community in a variety of roles that include but are not limited to State Lead for SERO Project and State Lead for PWN-USA. 

Originally from rural Indiana, Connie moved to Nevada in 2013 for health reasons after suffering carbon monoxide poisoning. Connie is passionate about addressing health and social inequalities that exist among sexual and gender minorities, particularly with disadvantaged women from all walks of life, and they became a certified advocate in 2018.

After back-to-back chronic illness diagnoses of Multiple Sclerosis and Inflammatory Bowel Disease in her 20s, Jackie Zimmerman turned to the internet to find a way to cope and build a support system. Blogging became the outlet she found and she quickly realized that she wasn’t the only one benefiting from her stories. Jackie became a professional blogger and public speaker and in 2012 formed a nonprofit called Girls With Guts to uplift women living with Inflammatory Bowel disease. 

Through the process of blogging and developing communities, Jackie honed her skills in digital communications by learning to design websites, create brand recognition and build online courses. She has now turned those into a full time career in her company Queen of GSD. Though she holds degrees in graphic design and information science, Jackie really built her digital marketing skills through the desire to tell her story and she is most passionate about helping others in the chronic illness community learn to share their own stories.

Leanna Lee is a content writer and journalist focused on the future of work and wellbeing. She works with tech and software companies to drive thoughtful conversations about remote work, business development, workplace wellness, and DEI. She also writes and speaks about her personal experiences as a disabled entrepreneur living with PTSD, situational depression, and generalized anxiety for 10+ years. Her podcast Bettermental, which she co-hosts and produces with Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist®Mike Veny, explores chronic mental health conditions and management for small business owners. Leanna is a professional member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) and a founding member of Plumia, a digital nation for digital nomads.

My name is Mercy, I have had Mycosis Fungoides for over 10 years. After living with my condition for so long I decided to truly celebrate myself. My teenage years were difficult, I spent years hiding my skin and trying to run away from myself. After going through treatments, I began to accept that there was no cure. This acceptance was the first step to my confidence journey. My journey evolved and I began to truly love and appreciate my differences. Growing up, I hadn’t seen myself represented anywhere, never on the front page of a magazine or in my day-to-day life. So decided I was going to work towards changing that. Not only for myself but others living with a chronic illness or visible difference, so that others experiencing the same insecurities may instead see the beauty in their skin. Why blend in when you were born to stand out?

I was diagnosed as a T2D in June 2020. I am a single mother full time and learning to juggle my diabetes with my life has not been so easy.

This interview holds a special place in my heart, and not only because Jacob is my brother, and my living donor. It’s a unique insight into the experience of an organ donor, one I, as a transplant recipient, cannot fully understand. I am one side of the story, the donor is another, and together we come together to create the transplant community.

Jacob is a university student, currently working towards an English degree and minoring in theology and communications. His hobbies include working out, playing sports, reading and watching movies (He lists Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and the Chronicles of Narnia among his favourites). 

As a donor, he underwent surgery to remove 60% of his liver and, despite challenges along the way, he describes his recovery process as fairly easy and straightforward. This may not be what everyone would say, but he credits an amazing medical team for his recovery, and upon entering the transplant centre, I can confidently say he is still more popular than me. Young, physically fit and the most generous guy around, Jacob quickly became the topic of conversation all around the hospital, and he is still an inspiration to doctors and nurses today. 

Going back to the basics and relearning how to walk post surgery was an enlightening and oddly enjoyable experience, says Jacob. As a busy college student, he was also forced to rest and recover, giving him an entirely new perspective on life. 

His sense of humour kept him going through the bumps in the road, from asking his doctor when he could hit the gym again after waking up post surgery to shrugging and saying “You win some, you lose some” when it came to his near death experience overdosing on pain medication while on the recovery floor. 

Throughout the whole process, with all it’s complex losses, Jacob says it is beyond worth it. He draws his inspiration from people who are doing what they love, living life to the fullest. 

Jacob is passionate about living life and loving others. And I am beyond proud to be his big sister.

(Jacob would also like me to add he is currently single and now accepting applications for potential dates)

I’m Ashley! A newlywed, mom-to be, and creator of things. I love creating hospitality experiences geared towards entertaining in your own home and making my guests feel like family. I’m originally from Tulsa, OK and currently reside in Houston, TX. As a type 2 diabetic, it’s important that I find balance in the kitchen to support a healthy lifestyle that I love.