In the humid air of a rainy Minnesota afternoon, I felt almost airborne as I rounded the turn and headed for the finish line of a 200-meter sprint that would have been completely impossible only a few years earlier.
My lungs were clear and I was exhilarated as I breathed deeply of the damp air and accelerated.
At that moment, I could not have been more aware of what my kidney transplant had given me.
This was as strong as I had felt since high school 40 years earlier – before hereditary polycystic kidney disease began its steady and inexorable assault on my kidneys and my health. As I walked off the track at the U.S. Transplant Games and flopped on the infield grass to stretch my hamstring muscles, I felt thrilled. It wasn’t just the thrill of victory.
This was the thrill of new life, of feeling well and understanding everything that led me to the Transplant Games. Before my transplant, sustained bleeding in my kidneys several times left me so weak and my blood counts so low that doctors later told me I could have died within hours if I had not gotten transfusions.
As feeble and helpless as my disease made me then, that’s how strong and solid I felt now. My transplant made me whole again after decades. This spring, as the ninth anniversary of my transplant approaches, and I train for my fifth Transplant Games, I still notice every minute of good health.
There’s also the comforting knowledge that I’m not the only one with renewed and vigorous life.
Every one of the 2,500 other transplant recipients I’ll join at this year’s Transplant Games in Louisville, Ky. will share my feelings, whether in the swimming meet or a basketball game, on the volleyball court, the track or the tennis courts. We’re all survivors and we’re all grateful, ever mindful of our donors – living (like my young cousin Tammy Carni, who cheerfully came to my rescue) or deceased.
I know I’ll be running again with Wiley Emery from Indianapolis, sporting a walrus mustache and a new heart. There will be Steve Houston from Mississippi, multiple medalist in the 100- and 400-meter runs, with a new kidney. I expect Mario Mendendez from northern Spain, a fabulous sprinter (for our age group) with a liver transplant. Tom Henry from Ventura, a fellow victim of polycystic kidney disease and the best all-around athlete I know, will be there, too. Plus Holly Miyagawa, a terrific volleyball player from Hermosa Beach with a new kidney. And on and on through the thousands around us.
The hugs and huge grins we exchange after competing hard are more than congratulations on a race well run. They’re for surviving, enduring incredibly hard times and emerging stronger than ever.
For all of us, the contrasts between then and now are stupendous. I remember leaving my dialysis center three times a week feeling chilled and lightheaded, wearing a heavy jacket even in summertime as I staggered through the parking lot and then drove home, my blood pressure on a constant roller coaster ride. I could never make firm plans for anything, because there was always a good chance I’d be ill.
No more. It’s been almost nine years of solid health and I never forget that each day is a gift.
All five days of this year’s Transplant Games in Kentucky will celebrate that new life and the medical progress and human generosity that gave it to me and many thousands more.
The biennial U.S. Transplant Games, an Olympic-style event for heart, lung, kidney, liver and bone marrow recipients, will be held June 16-21 in Louisville, Ky.