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A Mother's Love Goes Cross Country

[click to enlarge]


They didn't
who won,
but it didn't
They share
so much more
than that.




Story by Randy H. Milgrom
Photography by Bob Garypie and Peter Ottlakan

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 mother's.

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 transplant possible.

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.