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Each Experiences the Games In Their Own Way

by Jim Gleason

As we unpack from the long anticipated and now recently completed US Transplant Games 2000, our family of nine are looking back over our first real family vacation, our first joint visit to Disney World, our 35th wedding anniversary present to ourselves and family for which the Games and this vacation serve as a backdrop of real celebration.

For each it was a very different experience.

The story of our own trip is shared in yet another article, but in this I wanted to complete the other side of the original "directions" story written in anticipation of the Games 2000 and published on page three of the Opening Ceremonies. The following are highlights of the Games experience as seen from many several perspectives - the same people from that earlier story - a donor mom, a spouse who lost her husband waiting for a successful liver transplant, a transplant support professional, and finally a recipient (twice over) who captained one of the event teams.

As I call around to "check up" on the post-Games condition of my fellow Team Philadelphia members, I asked each how their anticipation had played out in the actual Games experience - aware of just how different paths have led them to this special celebration of life. For each it was a very different experience.

Pam, one of our donor families, found herself totally focused on the Games and supporting other team members. She joined the massive donor family march into the opening ceremonies with a heavy heart. From her last visit here at Disney World there were such loving and painful memories of her donor son, 13 year old Christopher. She volunteered as a donor family to present medals, tried to share this unique experience with her sister and two young nephews who had accompanied her (but the Disney parks were such a strong distraction for them that this caused some frustration - as it did for so many other attendees), and felt her heart in tears and pride at the Donor Recognition ceremonies as Christopher's photo appeared on the big screen once again. It was such mixed emotions, this roller coaster of a week - memories that relived that pain - then the support of the standing ovation of many close Team Philadelphia friends and thousands of others in that stadium. So many friends seemed to stay close through these days, trying to be there for her in understanding of the emotions that were happening - whether that be a conversation over lunch or a supportive arm in arm sharing of hearts on the bus ride back from the donor ceremony. All were very special to her, but the real surprise came upon returning from that long journey back home. Awaiting her there was a response to her own earlier note, a letter from the recipient of her Christopher's liver. "Such a wonderful letter. It certainly lifted my spirits...." To see what she found, check out that recipient's web tribute to their gift of life.

For another first time team member, Disney World was where, with her husband of many years dying awaiting a liver transplant, they had sought the relief of reality, a final visit of joy as it turned out. She came to volunteer wherever needed, but surprisingly found her gift and role to be that of team cheerleader, sharing her overflowing energy and spirit with each of us throughout the days of tears, joy and hard fought competition. The "ghosts" she had feared from her last visit thankfully didn't materialize. She enjoyed not being tied down to any one event as many of the competitors were when they had to stay for the whole day to swim for example. Instead she was everywhere, cheering them on, feeling the special feelings of being a part of this "worldwide neighborhood" as she described it. Her strongest emotional memory from these Games 2000, she says, will be the "overwhelming love" at the opening ceremonies for the donor families, the standing ovation of thousands, recipients and family alike, as throngs of donors marched into that stadium. The night air filled with love and thanks for the gifts of life that were here to show the world what can be when love is the foundation of a society such as this. Returning home she found that her energy has returned to levels know years before her husbands passing, something has changed. For those of us who know her constant energy up until the Games, we can't imagine what living with her will be like in the months to come (said with a "big smile").

From still another perspective, Mary, our transplant professional - and beloved Team Philadelphia mother/manager - found the Games full of the work she had anticipated despite the many months of preparation and an excellent OPO team and volunteers helping her. Of course there were the usual emergencies and variety of people issues given her responsibilities for the 191 athletes and over 700 family and supporters traveling to the Games. But these are surface things. The real deep "once in a lifetime" heartfelt memories will remain the scene in which Sue, a close friend and active donor family mom is reaching over and presenting the gold medals for the Team Philadelphia volleyball team, but the tears really started to flow when her son's own recipient, Santos, one of the team's members, bowed down in love and gratitude to receive that ribbon from this very special lady. In contrast, Mary's second highlighted Games memory came during the closing ceremonies. Another of her special team friends, young Clifford captured the hearts and laughter of the crowd with his infectious smile and never-ending wave as he stood center stage with that so contrastingly tall and famous, Sean Elliot. Once in the limelight, Clifford seemed intent on experiencing that special moment and never letting it go! Oh how we all laughed and waved back to this little hero. His pride and enthusiasm were what the Games are all about, making all her work feel so worthwhile.

Finally for Jeff, twice a kidney transplant recipient (once from a living donor, his mother), and now a donor family member since the passing of his beloved father whose organs were gifted to yet others, was anxious because of his responsibilities as coach of the Philadelphia volleyball team. Very much aware that he was "defending the silver" that team had won in the 1998 Games, Jeff is known to all as the ardent competitor, veteran of many past games, both national and worldwide, taking his competition very seriously. After an initial win but close call in the opening round, he was seen trying to refocus his team over lunch, illustrating strategy with the sugar packets on their table representing players' positions. Not everyone was paying attention, but they went on to win the Gold in that event. At the same time he found it hard to concentrate only on this team, the top level team on which he was actually playing, since he shared the coaching with the other "B" and "C" level teams that a large contingent like Philadelphia has to offer, allowing so many members to participate, each at their own playing level. As he recalls the thrill of winning the GOLD you can feel the pride of the competitor he is achieving their goal, sharing that glory with the friends that make up that special team. But as his story continues, you come to see the other side of this big hearted supporter. As it turns out his other level team found themselves short of the required number of players to compete, such a disappointment for the members who had come so far to play and show their skills. Despite the forfeit, they still wanted to play. The remaining team accepted the addition of these "lost" players, augmenting their own team at the last minute, even though they might then play less themselves. Jeff's voice fills with emotion as he tells of the valiant play that followed, playing for the love of the game and celebrating their post transplant life. Jeff describes it as "living what these Transplant Games are all about!" Even with the obvious pride seen in the well earned Gold medal around his neck, it is this later scene that you feel will remain with him beyond all the competitions that have past and will surely yet come for him over the years. Jeff continues to do what Jeff does best, supporting others, sharing with the Games' first time attendees that when all is said and done, there will be these special unplanned "coincidences" and happenings that will be the Games memories that last a lifetime. He shares one such special happening in telling me that special "coincidence" story of a chance meeting with a friend here from games past. I call them "memories from the heart" - Jeff objecting that "us" kidneys just don't get fair shakes, but then what would "memories from the kidney" mean, huh Jeff?

Together, we arrived and left on many different planes, cars, trains, etc. We each brought our own "baggage" and with the help and love of family and friends, that baggage became lighter as we shared the load together, feeling so normal in each others understanding and accepting company. We will take home and share in remembering and retelling this amazing Games 2000 celebration of life's victories, each having taken away new gifts of friendship, love, support and inspiration. The Games flames have been extinguished until next time, the announcement made: "These Games are closed!" And the many teams of survivors - recipients, donors, family, supporters and friends - will return to their daily lives enriched by the 2000 Games experiences - filled with joy and other emotions only each are able to feel and understand given those directions from whence they came. My own gifted new heart reaches out in love and thanks to each of you for all the beautiful sharings, now awaiting the Games in 2002 to see you all again.



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