A Game with Heart
6 Minute Read
You might mistake her for an Olympian if you saw her competing. But Amy Frackowiak has more than just passion and a competitive spirit behind her. She stands for a team of athletes who are determined to make the most of each day, on and off the field. And they are unstoppable. Frackowiak is a kidney transplant recipient and co-manager of the Transplant Games of America’s Team Texas, made up of more than 245 organ transplant recipients, living donors and donor families. Along with team manager and heart transplant recipient Brian Gilliam, and Houston Methodist Hospital Transplant Coordinator Donna Esposito, Frackowiak hopes to help spread the message of organ donation through participation in the 2014 Transplant Games of America, taking place in Houston, July 11-15. The Transplant Games of America is a multi-sport festival, akin to the Olympics, where teams and individuals from around the country compete in everything from basketball and cycling to ballroom dancing and Texas hold ‘em. It’s an opportunity for transplant recipients, living donors and donor families to gather to share their stories and experiences. The games will be held in venues across the city of Houston, capped by opening and closing ceremonies, on July 12 and 15, respectively. Medals are awarded to the top three competitors in each of the ten age groups. The ultimate goal of the event is to increase the number of registered organ donors in the state of Texas and around the country.
“There are 120,000 people in the United States right now waiting for an organ donation, and 18 people die almost every day waiting for an organ,” said Bill Ryan, president and chief executive officer of the Transplant Games of America. “Houston is a major metropolitan area, and home to the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world. We thought it was important to bring the games to a city or state that we thought could bring major change to the donor registry list, and in fact it has.” According to Donate Life America, ninety percent of Americans say they support organ donation, but only thirty percent know what it takes to become a donor. The organizers of Team Texas knew early on that it would take something as big as the Transplant Games to help spread the message of organ donation in Texas, a state with a shockingly low number of registered organ donors. “In 2008, when I was waiting for a heart, the Texas registry was at approximately 500,000,” said Gilliam. “Today it has over five million. There are no friendlier people in the world than there are in the state of Texas. There are no more giving people in this world than in the state of Texas. But people are uneducated about it.
“There are 12,000 Texans right now waiting for an organ donation,” he added. “It’s just that people don’t know the facts. Organ donations are saving lives.” A single donor can impact countless recipients through the transplantation of the heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, lung, intestine, corneas and tissue. For the first time this year, the Transplant Games will highlight corneal and tissue transplantation, in an effort to raise awareness for the life-changing, and often life-saving, procedures. “We are hoping that the games will help us demonstrate that there is hope, and the possibility of a healthy, happy life after transplantation,” said Ryan. Twenty-four-year-old Team Texas athlete Katy Portell was only four years old when she underwent surgery at Texas Children’s Hospital to repair a severe heart defect. A donor valve saved her life. Today, she is happy and healthy, giving back to a cause that is literally near to her heart. She serves as a volunteer program coordinator for the Southwest Transplant Alliance in Dallas, and is looking forward to running the 5K and competing in darts and trivia during the July games.
Living donors are also actively involved in the games, representing those who have donated a kidney to a friend, loved one or even stranger. Charlene Murphy received a kidney from her brother shortly after his eighteenth birthday. He had counted down the days, determined to give her the chance to watch her young children grow up. She will be running the 5K alongside her donor. “He said no matter how fast or how slow I go, he will be right there beside me so that both kidneys will cross the finish line at the same time,” she said. Portell and Murphy are just two of the more than 2,900 recipients, donors and families registered to compete, and the number continues to grow. But the event is about more than just the competition. Over the course of the games, participants are encouraged to take part in a number of special events designed to help members of the transplant community connect and share stories of hope and life after donation and transplantation. One of those events is the donor tribute, an event Ryan calls “the single most emotional moment of the games.” Sheree Jones will be taking part in the donor tribute, honoring her son Chad, and those she has come to know through the Organ Donation Hall of Fame, a website she started to recognize deceased and living donors. She and her family will be carrying that torch to the donor tribute, in the form of a Hall of Fame display. Heart transplant recipient Kevin Spencer will also be there. As a two time recipient treated twice by O. H. “Bud” Frasier, M.D., of the Texas Heart Institute, Spencer feels fortunate to still be living, and loving, life. He recognizes that his second, and third, chances came from the selflessness of strangers. “I marvel at times that I have gone through so much and I am still here enjoying life. That two people have had their lives cut short and yet I live,” said Spencer. “The odds were against me, but I owe it to my Lord Jesus and living in Houston where the cutting edge of cardio technology was happening, that I got my many chances at life. I would tell anyone who isn’t a registered organ donor, that they have the ability to give a great gift of life not to just the one who receives the organ, but to their family.”
Donor mom Shannon Lenox feels strongly that the best way an organ recipient can honor their donor is to live each day with passion and purpose. Lenox’s son, Roy Heck, was a lover of life. He was an adventurer, an outdoorsman, a best friend to a young neighbor with Down syndrome, and a friendly face for families impacted by Hurricane Ike. Even before his tragic death in 2010, Heck was a hero to so many who knew him. But his legacy changed just a bit the day his heart gave Michael Nall a second chance at life. Lenox has met and spent time with Nall and his family. She says it helps bring peace, to know that her son’s selflessness in life has continued on after his passing. She will be there to cheer on Nall as he competes in the ballroom dancing and darts events, and they will honor Heck’s memory during the donor tribute. “Roy lived his life to the fullest,” said Lenox. “He had a short time to live a lifetime, and that’s what he did every day. To know that Roy’s heart still beats, even though he’s not the one carrying it…and to see Michael as a father, a grandfather and a husband, and to know that he gets to have that second chance, it just solidifies that during the darkest point of my life, I made the right decision. “There was nothing else that I could do to save Roy here on Earth, but for him to be able to give others that chance to spend time with their families, and just live life…there are no words.”