Here are a few stories from the Transplant Games:
At the Track and field events, there are three girls and a high jump. Two of the girls have never done the high jump before and it’s a fairly steep learning curve. They are in competition with each other. One girl has had a kidney transplant, one has had a liver transplant, one has had a heart transplant. They are all 12-13 years old. A man who is a living kidney donor and competed in high school gives them some pointers. A man who is a liver recipient and his wife (who is also his donor) stand and watch along with family and friends. The girls each try it a few times and then begin the official competition. They cheer each other on. They encourage each other when they miss. Eventually, they falter, place, and then later in the day meet at the podium to get their medals. They hold their hands together and aloft in a winning pose, all smiles.
At the swim competition, there are all shapes and sizes of people, all ages, all nationalities. One man is missing a leg and still competes. Older competitors are giving pointers to younger ones. When the men line up on the swim blocks, you can tell what organ they got by the scars on their torsos: vertical across the chest is a heart transplant, a loopy W shape along the rib cage is a double lung transplant. A liver transplant is an upside down U across the abdomen. A kidney is a vertical line along one side. When someone was way behind in the races, the cheering gets louder for that person, rising to a crescendo when he or she finishes. When awards are given, you have never seen a person so happy as one who has been given a second chance at life and then wins an award for an athletic competition. Some cried on the podium. Some whooped with joy. It was like they had won the lottery. And, in fact, they had.
The youngest competitors at the track race(ages 2-5) ran a 25 meter race. The weakest of the runners was in a walker, and his dad had to help him. It took him nearly three times the amount of time to cross the finish line than the other competitors, he struggled for every meter, with his father literally helping him move his legs to go forward. The crowd gathered around him and cheered him on until he crossed the finish line and into his mom’s arms. The crowd went wild when he finished. The father stopped, held his arms up, and thanked everyone.
Wendy competed in the 100 yard dash, and is considered pretty fast. Some little girl from Philadelphia beat her by a four-tenths of a second. Competition for the pre-teens and teenagers was fierce because these kids fought with everything they had. It was a tough race anyway, and then when you realize that the entry fee was a transplant of some kind, it was almost unbelievable.
We met a woman from Georgia on the ride back to the hotel from the track and field event. She had gotten a heart transplant three years ago and decided to try the transplant games. She had a congenital heart defect so she had never been able to be athletic, but she trained and she tried her best. She said to me, “I didn’t place or get a medal, but never in my life have I been able to cross a finish line. Today I did it TWICE!” Her brother had come all the way from Albany to watch her because he had never seen her compete for anything in the athletic arena, and they both cried at the end because they were so overwhelmed. Then the woman saw Wendy and said, “You’re the girl who ran to get the award on the podium for the 1oo meter dash and then ran right back to compete for the long jump. I’ll never forget that as long as I live.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect by going to the Transplant Games with Wendy. I had hoped it would be a good experience, but it was really amazing–beyond amazing–I wish I had the right word. People from all walks of life, from all over the country, with a thousand stories of hardship. Older people helping younger people not just in athletics, but also showing that even when life is difficult you can still go on. Younger people competing hard but still cheering each other on. People taking inspiration from each other, supporting each other, celebrating the victories. The gratitude of a second chance. The celebration of a second chance. A community built around competition and camaraderie.
Wendy did really well at the games, she got a lot of medals, she placed in almost all her events. And yet, that’s not the important part of the trip. Even if she didn’t place, even if she was dead last, she would have garnered so much from the experience, and in the years that follow there will be times that she doesn’t feel well, doesn’t place, because her body isn’t cooperating, or maybe she’s on dialysis, or maybe she’s recovering from an illness. There will still be a place for her at the American Transplant games, that’s what is so encouraging, and fulfilling. It is a community of people that know the highs and lows of organ transplantation because they’ve lived it too. That is the best gift that has been given to Wendy I think. That is the best experience.
Photo: Wendy competing in the long jump, also for the first time. She placed second.