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Hosts of a Different Kind

[click to enlarge]

They shared
a similarly
vague -
yet still
certain -
belief about
keeping a
distance from
one's donor.

[click to enlarge]

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

Andrea Schäfer and Liz Schick sat smiling with friends around adjoining tables loaded with nothing but other friendly, smiling faces.

All of them - about a dozen or more of the 40 men, women, and children comprising the host Swiss Team at the 2001 Winter World Transplant Games in picturesque Nendaz - were warming themselves indoors after the morning's Giant Slalom event

Andrea Schäfer is a tiny Swiss native who was part of the original group that organized the Swiss Transplant Team in 1991, and she is this year's Team Manager. Dark-haired Liz grew up in London, but came to Switzerland on vacation at age 18 and has never left. Although she was a co-organizer of the Nicholas Cup that kick-started these Games on Sunday afternoon, this is her first time as a Transplant Games participant.

This is the third time Andrea has competed, but she says she loves the Games mostly because 'I bring back a lot of friendships, and learn about transplantation news from other countries.'

When asked how they did on the mountain earlier in the day, Andrea shrugs and says, 'doesn't matter.' Liz just squints. Clearly, the results of the day's events don't matter to her, either. 'I don't know. I just skied around those blue and white doors.'

Twenty four years ago, at the age of 16, Andrea received a kidney transplant necessitated by congenital defects that had been causing her health difficulties since birth, while Liz, 38, received a new liver just two-and-one-half years ago after suddenly contracting a baffling liver disease. Though in excellent health all her life, after complaining of a stomachache or two she found herself suddenly in need of a transplant within months after the illness was finally diagnosed. A donor liver became available following an eight month wait, and Liz has been 'absolutely fine' since. Andrea likewise says she has had no serious health problems in the 24 years since receiving her new kidney.

These two strong and active women started in different places, but after experiencing similar life-changing events under vastly different circumstances, they have become connected in a way neither could have predicted. Separated, but just barely, by the width of a sturdy wooden breakfast table in a restaurant overlooking a yawning Swiss valley (with the hidden, turning slalom course they both braved less than an hour earlier remaining safely out of sight), they shared a similarly vague yet still peculiarly certain belief about keeping a respectful distance from one's donor.

'I think it's better if you don't know,' says Andrea, as she leans forward and clasps her hands in front of her. 'If you know, and there are difficulties, you are too near to the person,' she explains. She was speaking of the possibility of a second heartbreak - presumably for the donor family - but perhaps for the recipient as well. There seemed a hesitation about not wanting to cause any more pain - a possibility that seemed real enough, and perhaps just close enough to the surface, to quell further inquiry.

Liz also says she has no desire to know about her donor - though she already knows a little. Almost immediately after her transplant, she had a 'certain' feeling that the liver had been donated by a man. Soon after, she wrote a letter to a local transplant coordination center to be forwarded on her behalf to the donor family. In the letter, she consistently used the masculine French form - 'le' rather than the feminine 'la' - in reference to the donor. When a representative who had both read the letter and knew the identity of the donor asked her how she knew it was a man, her 'certain' feeling was confirmed.

But she doesn't want to know any more than that. And as with Andrea, there is that vague yet still certain quality to the belief that this respectful distance is the right way to act as host of the donor's organ.

'I just like that magic,' says Liz - of knowing, presumably, yet still not knowing, all there is to know.