East Bay organ recipients represent state in U.S. Transplant Games
Source: Oakland Tribune
Reggie Wickliff never drank, did drugs or smoked, but in October 1996, the 38-year-old Oakland resident was given less than six months to live if he didn't receive a liver transplant. Two weeks later, he went into a coma.
By November, he had been in and out of two comas when the doctors notified his family he had a day to live if he didn't get a match. That day, about 7 p.m., he received the liver he desperately needed.
"If I didn't get that liver that night, I wouldn't be alive," Wickliff said. "It's like being born again. You have to learn how to walk and eat again."
It has been almost 14 years since Wickliff's transplant. Now, at 52, he is an active member of the California Transplant Donor Network, which organized a team of about 30 athletes to participate in the 20th annual National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games, which start today and run through Wednesday in Madison, Wis.
Wickliff will be competing in track and field. He'll have plenty of company from the Bay Area. Kathy Clark, of Alameda, who received a liver transplant five years ago, will compete in bowling; Ray Velasco, also from Alameda, who received a kidney transplant 17 years ago, will be swimming; and Michael Lause, of Livermore, a double lung recipient, will be competing in shot put, high jump, bicycling, volleyball and basketball.
Like Wickliff, they each faced dire situations.
Clark, 51, always had been healthy until she found out that a clot suddenly had blocked blood flow to her liver, damaging the organ. Because her condition was life-threatening, she was prioritized to receive a whole liver transplant from a deceased donor.
"There are no words that can say thank you enough to the family and to the donor that gave you the gift of life," Clark said. After the transplant, she began working for the California Transplant Donor Network as a volunteer coordinator.
"I really feel honored to work with the donor families and the recipients," she said.
Active in sports since she was young, Clark has been bowling in Alameda weekly to practice for the games. She joined the transplant games "to let (donor families) know that recipients really do appreciate the decision that they had to make at a terrible, terrible time in their life."
She also wanted to show the donor families that recipients "can lead a full life."
"When you go through (a transplant), you're kind of in shock," Velasco said. At the transplant games, he said, people open up to one another because "they all know what you're going through."
Velasco, 47, found out that he needed a kidney transplant when he was 30. He went on dialysis three days a week for a year while family members were tested to see if they could be donors. His younger sister, Jill, was the best match, and she donated a kidney to him.
Velasco, a lifelong surfer and swimmer who swam for Alameda High School in the late 1970s, received his transplant in 1993. Since then, he has participated in many U.S. and international transplant games where he has set several swimming records.
"Most people are surprised to know I have a transplant," Velasco said. The games show people that transplant recipients are "not frail and lumbering around."
In July 2005, Lause was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a respiratory disease that causes lungs to lose their ability to produce oxygen. After a double-lung transplant in October 2008, followed by about a year of what Lause called "minor" setbacks — which included needing to put a plate in his sternum — he was ready to give back to the community and get back to the activities he used to enjoy.
After training for more than six months, Lause, 56, will compete in shot put, high jump, bicycling, volleyball and basketball at the games, and he said he is considering competing in bicycling.
Although Lause is only at about 50 or 60 percent of his full potential, he said, "the games are now."
"I'm appreciative of my donor family. If I could win a medal for them, that would be awesome," Lause said. "It would be nice to win a gold, silver or bronze, but it's really about meeting people, making new friends and meeting people who have gone through the same things."
Wickliff has been a member of the California team since 1998. He also competes at the World Transplant Games.
"The games have become a unique family. You run into the same people every two years," he said. "At the same time it is sad. With our condition, nothing is ever promised, so you do find out of people who have passed away."
About 1,400 people in Alameda County are on the waiting list for an organ donation, and 108,000 people are on the waiting list nationwide.
Most need kidneys, but many are waiting for livers, hearts, lungs, and other organs and tissues. About 40 percent of organ and tissue donations are made by a living donor.
Individuals can sign up to be an organ donor when they get their driver's license renewed at the Department of Motor Vehicles, or online at http://www.donatelife.net/.