I returned last Sunday from Buenos Aires. We left Saturday morning from Mar Del Plata and took a bus to the airport. Unlike the arrival which took nearly 8 hours from airport to the hotel, this took only 5 hours in return. Things are different in a foreign county than in the US. It sounds so obvious but until I had experienced it first-hand I don’t think I could have understood. Things like which terminal at the airport my flight departed from, when to be there, when do the airlines show up, what does security look like. I found it particularly funny going through security in Argentina as I nearly stripped down and spread my legs, the security people were like, “no, no, that is not necessary. You can keep everything on and just walk through the scanner.” But then when I got to the gate and was called to board my bag got dumped, turned upside down and shaken. I don’t know what would have fallen out that would have been illegal but……..I was thoroughly checked and deemed worthy to board.
I ended up competing in golf, swimming, and track. I ran the 5k on Monday morning in 26:00. This was 4:30 faster than any time I have run post-transplant and would have won the 40-49 age group in the previous games. I came in 15thJ In swimming I placed 4th in all of my events and was quite close to medaling. The competition was quite impressive in swimming with many athletes competing all around the world in Masters swimming. That I could compete and quite nearly place with no training was a blessing and left me anxious for the next games. Competing in a 4x100 relay in a pool that once hosted the Pan Am games, filled with people and music blaring was motivating and I won’t forget that experience.
The games went quickly with something to do nearly every day. For me the most exciting part was being surrounded by other transplant patients, nearly 1000 of us. I have an affinity towards heart transplant patients, I cannot help it. But I saw that kidneys looked for kidneys, livers and lungs the same thing. I also met athletes who had stem cell and bone marrow transplant, and even a young man from England who had a bowel transplant. Talk about a stinky situationJ Nobody considered themselves a patient, to a person an athlete. Comradery abounds with competitors and supporters cheering just as hard for those who finish last as they do for the winners.
I had the pleasure of meeting my new friend Matt, from Washington state. He is 43 and is 5 years post-transplant. We quickly bonded as swimmers. Matt set 5 world records for the Transplant Games and was definitely popular amongst the other athletes. We also met a young woman from Germany who was 14 years post-transplant. Like Matt and me she had had a LVAD previously. Everyone is quick to compare scars and stories.
The hardest part though for me was leaving. When I first arrived and met the rest of team USA I was often reminded that the first games you attend are special. People are quick to share their stories and having competed on different continents, against certain people, long standing rivalries. With my experiences now in hand goodbyes took the form of “see you in two years and take care of yourself. Be healthy.” Something I wasn’t prepared for was the solemn remembrances of athletes fighting cancer or some other complication. Very heartfelt.
We in the US have some work to do. While we did great at the games, finishing 4th overall, in some sports like swimming we were in awe of Great Britain, Greece, Netherlands, and Italy, to name a few. In talking with other athletes I learned that when you are placed on the transplant list that other patients begin recruiting you to compete post-transplant. This is done to provide you a sense of optimism and hope and something to aspire to. In my experience, I accidently discovered the World Transplant games, an experience shared by other athletes. I look forward to the day where transplant patients “new normal” looks like the old normal and may be better.
I am fortunate that I have my health today, I am always one blood test from a complication. But the optimism, the energy, and the enthusiasm for life at these games was amazing. I cannot wait for Spain in two years. I did my absolute best and tried to carry my dad with me in every event. He was on my mind throughout. While we didn’t do the games together I know he was with me.