Story by Randy H. Milgrom
Photography by Bob Garypie and
Denmark's Soren Hermansen, 28, first
met Finland's Jerry Kettunem, 31, five years ago on the cross
country course at the Winter World Transplant Games in France.
It was the first Transplant Games competition for each of
them. This afternoon, at the demanding track in nearby Siviez,
they met again in the 3 km race.
The first time around, Kettunem easily outdistanced the younger
Hermansen, but Hermansen has since labored hard at his sport
- even outmaneuvering the lack of cooperation in his relatively
flat and snowless homeland by working out on roller skis every
other day as the Games approached.
The two old friends had competed against each other in the
Adult division, and afterward they stood side by side, cleaning
their skis and comparing notes. The track was demanding, they
agreed - extremely hard packed, and in the higher altitude,
the uphill climbs were a stretch. And though they hadn't yet
received any official results, it was clear that the competition
between them was much closer this time.
Kettunem was lavishing his younger partner with praise, telling
him how much faster he had become since the last time they
met. "My technique has improved," Hermansen admitted.
As the two competitors boarded the bus to Nendaz, they still
didn't know who won. But that didn't matter. They share so
much more than a love of winter sports.
Jerry Kettunem received a kidney transplant eight years ago
this coming weekend. He remembers the exact day, as anyone
might, but for Jerry there's another reason why his memory
is so precise. A day later, his wife delivered to him a son,
Jere. He received news of his birth from a hospital near Helsinki
as he lay in bed recovering from surgery. The kidney was his
Soren Hermansen also skied today with a kidney he received
from his mother - ten glorious years ago, and only after first
receiving bone marrow from her one year earlier, when he was
17. Soren was born with Wiscot-Aldrich Syndrome, a stem cell
disease that affects the immune system and that can cause
numerous medical difficulties ranging from allergies and skin
rashes to kidney and other organ failures. He had been receiving
dialysis treatment for two years, and had been operating with
a completely failed kidney by the time he finally received
his mother's organ.
The years since Hermansen's transplant have been "the best
years of my life," he nearly shouts, and of course he wishes
the transplant could have been performed earlier. But he and
his mother were only a 75% tissue match, which necessitated
the bone marrow transplant - which in turn made the kidney
After Kettunem was diagnosed, at 23, with an unknown disease
he says still remains a mystery (the only thing doctors knew
for certain was that Jerry would need a kidney transplant),
he only had to wait about six months before receiving a healthy
organ from his mother. Kuttunem says that they talk about
their shared experience a lot, and that it has brought them
much closer together. He will be bringing his mother flowers
immediately following this week's Games to commemorate the
date of the surgery - just as he has done each of the last
eight years since.
Soren's mother is a registered nurse who he says understands
completely, and in the most natural way possible, what has
transpired between them - which magically renders expressions
of gratitude unnecessary. But if the strong bond between them
sometimes goes unstated, he says, it never goes unnoticed.
Soren says the ski competition this afternoon was "thrilling
- it's our little version of the Olympic ideal we're living,"
he smiled. Jerry had a great time in the thin air and the
sunshine, too - though he may have been handicapped during
the months leading up to the event by Finland's largely snow-deprived
winter. "Haven't done a lot of skiing this year," he frowned.
Soren seemed hopeful, while Jerry seemed resigned to a different
fate this time. But it really didn't matter who won the race.
They each have so much more than a medal to warm them. They
have a mother's love.