American golfer Eric Compton ended in second place in the 2014 US Open tournament at Pinehurst in North Carolina. His achievement is a testimony to the tenacity of organ donor recipients.
Compton, 38, has had two heart transplants in his lifetime, at ages 11 and 28.
South Africa’s best sport participants who are also recipients of an organ donated by another, will be in Nelson Mandela Bay today and tomorrow (July 13-14) for the national Transplant Games, a precursor to the bi-annual international event which, next year, takes place in Newcastle, England.
The “Olympics for organ transplant recipients” represents the triumph of medical science and human generosity that underpins transplantation surgery. And the sheer willpower of those whose bodies were as close as anything to shutting down before they received their life-giving treatment.
When a critical solid organ – heart, lung, kidney, liver, pancreas – fails, it signals a slow but inexorable decline in one’s general health, often presaging death.
Depending on which organ has failed, one might have shortness of breath, tiredness and a general lack of energy, nausea which can lead to blackouts, loss of appetite, fluid retention, itchiness. One’s mind is not as clear as it might have been in the past and at times there are episodes of disorientation. The abdomen feels bloated all the time. The individual’s breath might smell.
Life changes totally, from how you may have experienced it before. For many, it may involve long periods of laying in a hospital bed.
If you are experiencing such organ failure, you might go onto a transplant list, with the possibility of being selected to receive an organ from a living or deceased donor – if and when one becomes available that matches your medical profile.
But the odds are stacked against you. Worldwide, only a miniscule number of donor organs become available for transplantation – in South Africa, only a few hundred solid organ transplants take place each year.
Organ transplantation has been occurring around the globe for over 60 years, with the first heart transplant in the world being performed in Cape Town in 1967. The challenge to develop effective immunosuppressant drugs to prevent the body’s natural rejection of the donor organ delayed the real benefits of transplantation to organ recipients or transplantees.
By the late 1970s, however, there was so much confidence in transplantation treatment that transplantees were organising themselves into formal transplant games to promote their general mental and physical health. The benefits of an active lifestyle among transplantees has become increasingly apparent over the years.
In some sense participating in transplant games may seem a little bit like being in a grade one class at primary school, with the teacher giving each pupil a gold star – typically for effort or just being present – so that nobody feels excluded. While serious competition takes place for the medals on offer at Transplantation Games, the vast majority of participants carry the mindset that they have already won by the time they arrive at the games.
They’ve been the recipient of sacrificial giving by a donor which is impossible to measure. They’ve benefitted from the brilliant, painstaking research of many medical professionals. They’ve literally built or rebuilt their bodies from the nothingness of the muscles wasted over long periods of limited or zero exercise. What more is there to prove?
But in challenging their re-invigorated bodies – re-birthed even – to reach new limits of endurance and skill, they continue to show us all how important are organ transplantation programmes for the good of society generally in every field of endeavour.
The athletes show us what full recovery and rehabilitation from the most debilitating diseases known to humankind look like. They all have stories to tell which affirm organ transplantation as an essential medical treatment which must be supported by government and the private sector alike.
Their performances increase public awareness of this treatment and generate a greater commitment among members of the public to be organ donors themselves.
Many participants want to honour the sacrifice of their donor by showing what an impact the donated organ has made.
The transplant games also encourage fitness in individual organ recipients.
It’s easy to think that human organs become diseased only as a result of poor lifestyles, an over-indulgence of food and drink, and lack of exercise. Certainly lifestyles can play a role and stories are common place of those of us who do not properly look after our bodies.
But many organ transplant recipients have had a diseased body part since birth, from an early stage of life or otherwise contracted a disease that affected a critical organ through no fault of their own. There are those, too, who cared fastidiously for their health throughout their lives, even participating in good physical activities, only to find themselves seriously ill as a result of infection.
Illness can take over one’s life over a long period but it can also occur very quickly.
Some transplantees were very active and competitive participants in a variety of sports before they fell ill. Their transplanted organ has given them an opportunity to return to these sporting pursuits.
But even if one was not capable of much physical activity because of one’s illness, many transplantees accept the new lease of life they have been given with a donor organ. They want to enjoy every aspect of their radically improved quality of life.
When you encounter an organ transplantee performing a sport activity at the highest level, cheer them on. Say a quiet prayer of thanksgiving for the immense sacrifice of another who made it possible for them to have healthy, active lives. And make a commitment to donating your organs either now in a living donation – for example, a kidney – or when you die.
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