by Marty & Ken Reynolds
Who would want to leave the cool mountains of North Georgia to spend a hot July week in Houston? Had it not been that our daughter, a kidney transplant recipient, was competing in the Donate Life Transplant Games of America we would have stayed here. But parental love prevailed, and we braved the mid-summer heat in Texas.
In 1982, our eight-year-old daughter, Katie, swam in a meet in Richmond, Virginia. As she got set to dive into the pool, faces turned toward her. We heard voices murmuring, “That’s the little girl who had the kidney transplant this winter!”
We were intent on watching her swim, but the fingers pointing toward her made it clear that many others were following her progress down the pool . She finished her heat to cheers and whistles, and then rewarded her supporters with a big gap-toothed grin. She didn’t come in first, but who’s to say she didn’t win that evening.
On July 12, 2014, we watched Katie dive into another pool as a competitor in the Donate Life Transplant Games of America at Rice University in Houston. This time, only her family and her fellow Georgia teammates singled Katie out. She was just one of many transplant recipients (kidney, double lung, pancreas, heart, liver, cornea – and combinations of those) vying for the gold medal.
Among all those competitors, Katie was only a little unusual in that she has received three transplanted kidneys —her first from her mother, her second from her father and her third from an anonymous individual who chose to help someone else continue to live.
Many of the swimmers displayed inked donor’s names on their backs or shoulders to honor those who had given the gift of life. The women’s suits covered their surgery scars, but the male swimmers proudly displayed their badges of honor.
Swimming was only one of dozens of competitions for all age groups. Most of the athletes were accompanied by family and friends, so there were thousands of people attending the games. We had the wonderful realization that somehow everyone attending was related –Katie as an organ recipient; her parents as donors; Katie’s husband and son as loving and supportive family members, and all the other participants and their supporters had transplantation in common.
Unlike the usual sporting event crowd, every person we encountered was friendly and eager to share what transplantation meant to them —and they were anxious to hear our story.
The opening ceremony, modeled on the Olympic Games, was a remarkable experience. We enjoyed it from the field level. Each state’s team marched in, and then the living donors followed. When we walked into the stadium with hundreds of other living donors, the spectators and athletes rose and cheered. As we walked around the track, people reached out from the stands to touch our hands and say “Thank you” or “God Bless.” They were telling all donors that they deeply appreciate what they have received.
Walking along that track, we joined the smiles and tears of the transplant recipients and their families and friends. But what we really saw was reverence, appreciation and joy directed not at us as individuals, but to everyone who donates the gift of life.
The reception we living donors received paled when the last group entered the stadium —the families of those no longer with us whose gift allowed the competitors in the games to continue living. Many of the families carried posters honoring the loved ones they had lost, but they believe in transplantation and they were celebrating that someone else was continuing to live and was able to compete.
Watching and listening to the athletes (who ranged in age from less than three to well over seventy) and their families, we saw the respect and reverence with which they treat their gifts of life.
Many years ago, when Katie needed a kidney and before the science advanced to where we could be donors, a friend asked how we felt that someone might have to die to receive a life-saving organ. As much as we wanted our daughter to receive a healthy kidney, we had no desire for someone else to lose a loved one.
We recognize, however, that every day people die from innumerable causes. When those people and/or their families choose to use that occasion to donate life to another person, it is a gift beyond measure. Our parents taught us to accept gifts with gratitude. It would be unthinkable to accept the gift of life with less than gratitude and reverence and respect.
The games were competitive, but the spirit was cooperative. More than a competition, the games also were a celebration of thanksgiving for those people who chose to donate so that another might live, and for the families who remembered and honored the wishes of their lost loved one.
How did Katie do? A silver medal in all three of the events she entered!
We are proud of her perseverance, and we are overflowing with gratitude to the anonymous family who in a time of terrible grief made a selfless decision and provided our daughter with a third chance at life. On that day, our family circle expanded to include them.
Don’t think you are too old to be a donor. Don’t think your life will be diminished if your were to give up a kidney, or a part of your liver or lung or bone marrow. Instead, your life will be enriched.
For more than thirty years since donating Katie’s first kidney, Marty has had normal kidney function and no diet restrictions. Ken was 65 when he donated a kidney, and he has experienced no deterioration of kidney function and has not needed to alter his diet.
Senior Citizens can make an essential difference in someone’s life. Please sign that donor card.
It really was hot in Houston, but we never regretted one degree of the temperature difference.
A previous version of this article was published in the September 2014 edition of Smoke Signals.