Transplant Donors And Recipients To Compete In National Games
By ARIELLE LEVIN BECKER, firstname.lastname@example.org
EAST HARTFORD — —
'Team Connecticut" will take part in the U.S. Transplant Games in Wisconsin, a biennial Olympic-style competition for organ transplant recipients and living donors.
Twice a week, Jane Andrews climbs onto her gold bike for a 10-mile training ride.
Six years ago, it was a triumph for her to walk a lap around the house. Not long before that, she barely had the energy to get dressed.
Andrews, 48, had been an active person for most of her life. Although she had diabetes since childhood, she was disciplined enough to keep it in check. Then, in her mid-30s, she developed kidney failure, a complication of diabetes, and found herself exhausted all the time.
She spent years waiting for a transplant. When she finally got it — a new kidney and pancreas — she faced months of recovery.
Now, six years later, she barely stops.
Later this month, Andrews will travel to Madison, Wis., as one of 60 members of "Team Connecticut," which will compete in the U.S. Transplant Games, a biennial Olympic-style competition for organ transplant recipients and living donors.
She fits her rides in between her job, as a food service supervisor at Hartford Correctional Center, and the presentations she gives on behalf of LifeChoice Donors Services, the area's organ procurement organization, telling audiences about the importance of organ donation.
She constantly thinks about ways to tailor her presentations to better address certain audiences. Some nights she wakes up with an idea and writes it down. She carries a tape recorder in case she gets an idea while she's driving.
Much of what drives Andrews is a sense of gratitude — to her family; to the staff at Hartford Hospital, where she got her transplant; to her coworkers and the staff at prisons across the state, who donated sick time to her; and most of all, to the woman whose name she does not know, whose 19-year-old son's death gave Andrews a kidney and pancreas.
The woman wrote letters to all the recipients of her son's organs. The letters do not carry the woman's name because privacy law calls for anonymity between donor and recipient.
Andrews chokes up when she thinks about the woman's words, expressing hope that the organs are working out well, that she will live a long, happy and healthy life.
"How do you thank somebody for that?" Andrews said.
The Transplant Games are meant, in part, as a way to try.
Started as a two-day competition among transplant recipients in 1982, the games are now organized by the National Kidney Foundation. This year they are expected to draw more than 1,500 people to compete in 12 athletic events, a way for transplant recipients to come together and pay tribute to donors and their families. There are events designed to thank donors' families and living donors, and to raise awareness of organ donation.
Andrews can rattle off statistics about the wait list. There are more than 108,000 people waiting for a transplant in the U.S.
And she knows what it's like to be on the list, waiting to hear that there's an organ for you.
"Every time the phone rings, you jump out of your skin," she said.
Most of the time it would be friends or family calling with questions, apologizing for tying up the phone line.
Andrews waited more than three years. Sometimes, she would wake up for work, shower and dress, only to fall asleep when she sat down to put on her socks and shoes.
She dragged at work, where she cooks breakfast and lunch for almost 1,200 inmates, supervising the inmates who work in the kitchen, teaching them what she can about skills ranging from food preparation to vocabulary.
At least once a year, she went through a series of medical tests to make sure she was still healthy enough for a transplant. If she got a cold or the flu, she would have to notify her transplant team at the hospital to let them know; being sick meant she couldn't receive an organ.
In the meantime, she was on dialysis — a part-time job, she called it, since she had to get it three times a week, for four hours at a time. Her friends joked that she read more books on dialysis than she did in college.
It's not a good idea to read the obituaries when you're waiting for an organ, she said — it feels too much like being an ambulance chaser. She didn't hope for people to die. But she knew it happens.
Then came the phone call, on July 2, 2004: A kidney was available. Get to the hospital, now. And, by the way, drive slow.
She was hooked up to an IV, getting prepared for the transplant when the news came: The kidney was not healthy enough to transplant. Andrews would have to wait some more. She called it a practice run.
The next call came in August, interrupting her plans. Her brother was coming to town and they were planning to see a Rock Cats game. How soon do I have to get there? she asked her transplant coordinator.
Jane, just get here, the coordinator told her.
She got the kidney and pancreas in an eight-hour operation. She spent three weeks in the hospital, two in intensive care.
Never before, Andrews said, had she thought "why me?" — not when her mother died when she was a child, or when she was diagnosed with diabetes a few months later. But after the transplant, she did.
"Why am I still here?" she wondered. "Why wasn't this 19-year-old given another chance?"
The ride home from the hospital felt strenuous. But gradually, she worked up her strength, beginning with a lap around her house, a small Cape. Her stepmother, who was taking care of her, asked how many laps she made, and told her to do another.
Eventually, she moved on to a walk around the block, a fifth of a mile. Then around the block and down the street, and then twice around the block.
That winter, she moved her computer upstairs as an incentive to climb the stairs.
Finally, she got permission to go back to the gym. And after 10 1/2 months, she went back to work. On the first Monday after she returned, she walked in to roll call to applause and became too choked up to say thank you. Inmates who knew her when she was sick — some of whom had committed new crimes and returned to jail — saw her and asked, "You're still alive?"
Andrews began corresponding, anonymously, with the mother of her organ donor, and meeting families of other organ donors, who do not know the identities of the people who received their loved ones' organs. They make presentations together, giving faces to the stories of organ donation, telling stories she hopes will stick with the audiences.
When she has bad days, she goes back to her letters from her donor's mom.
She continues to write to the woman, feeling an obligation to let her know that the organs are working as they should. She told her about the Transplant Games, where she is looking forward to meeting other transplant recipients.
Andrews doesn't expect to win her event, a 20-kilometer bike ride. She hopes not to place last. The point is to pay tribute, she said.
"I'm doing this as a thank-you for her son, for her son's gift," she said.
For more information on organ donation, visit http://www.lifechoiceopo.org.