Audio ShowcaseStory ShowcasePhoto ShowcaseOpening CeremoniesDonor Recognition CeremoniesQuilt PinningClosing CeremoniesVolleyball CompetitionTennis CompetitionBowling CompetitionTrack & Field CompetitionTable Tennis CompetitionSwimming CompetitionRaquetball Competition5K RaceGolf CompetitionCycling CompetitionBasketball CompetitionBadmiton CompetitionKidsTeamsDonar Families1999 Summer World Games1999 Winter World Games1998 U.S. Games1997 Summer World Games1996 U.S. Games
Visit TransWeb
Press ReleaseMessagesBehind the ScenesWebcast Sponsors

The Games through a Surgeon's Eyes:
Seeing Transplantation in a New Light

by Bob Merion, MD

Natalie O'Dell was pounding down bowling pins with a little help: a kidney that wasn't her own. She told me her story between games.

Her first transplant was an unmitigated disaster. The problem was that the kidney she needed to receive was huge, obviously from a donor much bigger than Ms. O'Dell. The kidney solved one problem but unfortunately caused another: her abdomen was so overcrowded that the circulation to her leg was impaired. Ms. O'Dell was fortunate, though, because Dr. Gordon Burtch, her surgeon in Florida, performed several reconstructive surgeries that prevented her from having an amputation. Although the leg was saved, the experience left her in a wheelchair for the next two and one-half years and she had to return to dialysis when the large kidney failed.

... the emotional well of participants and spectators alike was finally empty, drained after having served up so many buckets of courage, spirit, and character.
I finally feel like I know what transplantation is all about.

Later, she moved to South Carolina and got a second chance at a new kidney, when Dr. Prabakhar Baliga performed her transplant at the Medical University of South Carolina. This one fit like a glove and worked well-- she's made a terrific recovery and has returned to many active pursuits.

As Ms. O'Dell told me this story, I found myself almost holding my breath in anticipation of the outcome, even though it was obvious as she was standing there that everything must have turned out for the best. I was amazed by her courage and tenacity in the face of unfortunate circumstances and transplant complications. She refused to give in to adversity and was totally confident that she would recover. Her constant smile and upbeat attitude were infectious.

As she concluded her story, I thanked her for sharing her experiences. Up to that point, I had been just one of the TransWeb volunteers in purple polo shirts, running around the 2000 U.S. Transplant Games taking photographs, recording interviews, and writing stories about the miraculous human drama that is transplantation. But without knowing it in advance, the story had turned more personal than I had anticipated.

You see, I am a transplant surgeon, one of a small number who has had the privilege to attend the U.S. Transplant Games. It turns out that serendipity brought Natalie O'Dell and me together, because I had trained both Dr. Burtch and Dr. Baliga at our transplant program at the University of Michigan Transplant Center.

There was a mixture of pride and guilt, concern and relief, knowing that surgeons I had personally trained had gotten her into a maze and safely out the other end. There was the inevitable sense of responsibility and personal pain that one feels when things go awry in transplantation. Patients and their families expect surgeons to be responsible, and they count on us for support, strength, and guidance in difficult times. But there is little room for self-doubt, guilt, or pain. We are trained to keep those emotions to ourselves. We're supposed to act superhuman even though we're not.

On telling Ms. O'Dell of my circuitous connection to her, she shrieked with joy. She embraced me and exclaimed, "Wait till I tell Momma about you!"

She promised to get in touch with both surgeons and let them know that she had met me, and I promised to do the same. It made me feel good to have met her.

Ms. O'Dell's story was not unique. She was one of 1700 recipient athletes competing with transplanted organs at the 2000 U.S. Transplant Games in Florida. From the minute the games opened Wednesday night with inspiring remarks from U.S. Transplant Games spokesman Carl Lewis, transplant recipients Sean Elliott and Larry Hagman, and donor father Jeff Wetzell, the stage was set for moving and powerful experiences. Ms. O'Dell and others like her filled the stadium that opening night for a joyous and exhilarating Olympics style opening ceremony.

Contrast the joyousness of that event with the poignancy of the National Donor Recognition Ceremony on Thursday afternoon, where over 1100 donor families and living donors gathered. Not even the boxes of Kleenex at the end of each and every row of seats were enough to contain our tears. Hundreds of names were read and candles were lit, highlighting incredible generosity in the face of tragedy and selflessness in aid of others.

In the end, the awarding of transplant athlete and courage medals and the extinguishing of the torch at the Closing Ceremony of the 2000 U.S. Transplant Games on Saturday night were important but strangely anticlimactic. Perhaps the emotional well of participants and spectators alike was finally empty, drained after having served up so many buckets of courage, spirit, and character.

I finally feel like I know what transplantation is all about. Now that I've glimpsed it, you can bet that I'll be back in 2002.


Back to the top