Heart recipient competes in games
By AMBER KROSEL
HUNTLEY – Carissa Panek just graduated high school but already is a seasoned athlete.
This month marks the third year that the 18-year-old heart transplant recipient will be participating in the National Kidney Foundation’s U.S. Transplant Games.
Similar to the Olympics, athletes compete for gold medals and are cheered on by stands full of people – except that these games are all about celebrating and honoring transplant recipients, living organ donors, and the families of deceased donors.
“What kind of got us hooked is: It was such a neat experience seeing so many people receive the gift of life,” said Ann Panek of Huntley, Carissa’s mother. “It really hits home when you know someone personally who has been touched by it.”
After spending just five days on a waiting list when she became ill, Carissa received her heart transplant on Mother’s Day 2002. She and her late brother, RJ, both had dilated cardiomyopathy, a genetic condition in which the heart becomes weakened and enlarged, and cannot pump blood efficiently.
RJ died before Carissa’s heart transplant, about five years after his own. His organ had been donated from a 22-year-old woman who died in a car accident. Ann Panek and her husband, Bob, said they were lucky enough to meet and spend time with his donor’s family.
Although they don’t know Carissa’s donor, the Paneks are happy that she’s had eight years with her new heart and no rejections. She plans to study pre-pharmacy at Elmhurst College.
Mary Schlereth, the manager of Team Illinois for the Transplant Games, said Carissa was “living proof that donation and transplantation works.”
This year’s Transplant Games take place July 30 to Aug. 4 in Madison, Wis. Athletes range in age from 2 to 85 and will compete in 12 sporting events, including swimming, basketball, golf, badminton, and, for the first time, ballroom dancing.
During the past two Transplant Games, Carissa has won gold and silver medals in bowling and table tennis, and secured plenty of pins from friends she’s met who live in other states.
The competition has been running every other year for two decades. About 7,000 people are expected to attend the Madison events, with 287 registered to participate through Team Illinois.
Since 2008, Team Illinois began raising funds for a community project, which likely will be an event to increase the registration of organ and tissue donors this fall.
“It’s just so great to see these people who have received organ transplants participate at a high activity level,” Schlereth said. “They’re not letting anyone stop them.”
• More than 108,000 Americans currently are waiting for an organ or tissue transplant.
• 18 people die every day while on that waiting list.
• 1 person who gives their organs or tissues at the time of their death can save or enhance the lives of more than 25 people.
Source: Mary Schlereth, the manager of Team Illinois for the National Kidney Foundation’s U.S. Transplant Games.