Stories of Hope and Sacrifice: Transplant Games Come to San Diego – The San Diego Union-Tribune | WHs Answers

Every organ tells a story at the Transplant Games of America, set to begin Friday in San Diego.

For example, Eryn Roberts’ left kidney. The La Mesa resident was 27 when she decided to give it to a 70-year-old man she had never met. Friends told her she was crazy. She told them she had no choice.

“There are more than 100,000 people in the United States waiting for organs,” said Roberts, who works as a training and support specialist for a local start-up. “There’s nothing I can do if I see something bad happening. It would be like watching someone drown.”

The operation was in North Carolina five years ago. It went well. Her recipient, Tommy Lee McCaman, came off dialysis and enjoyed spending time with his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. He might have been on his way to San Diego for the transplant games if he hadn’t contracted COVID and died in December 2020.

However, his son Michael is coming. He came from Durham, NC to cheer for Eryn Roberts, who attends half a dozen events.

Eryn Roberts, right, with Tommy Lee McCaman. She donated her kidney to him in 2017.

(Photo courtesy of Eryn Roberts)

The Transplant Games have been held every two years since 1990. This is her first time in San Diego. Organ recipients and living donors will compete in 20 events ranging from traditional (track and field, swimming, basketball) to recreational (cornhole, ballroom dancing, Texas Hold’em poker).

Normally, 42 state teams register — several have athletes from multiple states — but ongoing coronavirus concerns have meant a handful from Alabama, South Carolina, New Mexico and Tennessee have not come this time.

Teams from Australia, Colombia and Brazil compete. The Southern California team includes about 50 people from San Diego County.

Also present will be donor families (both living and deceased), as well as transplant specialists, nurses and people on organ waiting lists. The organizers expect around 10,000 participants in the six-day activities from July 29th. Many of the events are open to the public.

Medals will be awarded, but the main goal is to raise awareness about transplants and show the wider community that people who have received organ, eye or tissue donations can lead active lives. And to show the donors and their families what the gifts have achieved. What do you mean.

According to the organizers, it is “the world’s greatest festival of life”.

The Quarter Century Club

In the summer of 1994, when Laura Warren McCarty was 8 years old, she became ill. She couldn’t keep food down. Her kidneys failed.

She was put on the transplant list. It turned out that a perfect partner was close by: her father, Ray.

The operation was a success. She grew up, married, and moved to Poway, where she works as a paralegal. Her doctors had told her that pregnancy after the transplant was unlikely to occur or go well, but four years ago she gave birth to a daughter. Both are fine, she said.

She competed in the Transplant Games in 2004 when they were in Minnesota, and when she saw that they were in San Diego this year, she registered again. She does the 5K and takes part in bowling.

Many of those who attend the Games don’t consider themselves athletes — “You couldn’t pay me to go to a gym,” Roberts said — and McCarty is no exception. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t take it seriously. About six months ago she joined a bowling league to improve her skills.

Her parents come from Colorado to watch her. “They’re just happy that I’m attending,” she said, happy to be healthy so many years after the transplant.

Laura McCarty and her family.

Laura McCarty, bottom left, with her parents Ray and Connie Warren and (far right) sister Sheryl. Ray Warren donated a kidney to Laura 28 years ago.

(Courtesy of Laura McCarty)

The 28 years since her surgery qualifies her for one of the Games’ signature events: The Quarter Century Club Dinner & Dance. Open to those celebrating 25 years since their transplant, it is scheduled for August 1 aboard the USS Midway Museum.

“Twenty-five years is a pretty big deal,” McCarty said. “The dinner is special because it celebrates both donors and recipients who have reached this milestone and both my dad and I qualify.”

Such events are the highlights for many participants. Stories are shared, friendships made, victims honored. Tears fall – some happy, some not.

There are sessions for trading commemorative pins, some of which are custom made. People bring quilts and quilt squares that are displayed in honor of specific donors.

“It’s really about the community,” said Susan Van Campen, President of Team SoCal and kidney donor. “You see recipients who are full of hope, grateful for the second chance and eager to show they can still function like anyone else.

“And you see the families of donors who are no longer with us, who see what it means to have their loved one’s organs live on. It’s a healing experience for them.”

The Herrera family can hardly wait.

A pink sticker

Sara Michelle Herrera lived in Lakeside and made friends everywhere. She loved music, art classes, swimming, car rides and the Mango Dragonfruit drink at Starbucks.

She was 22 when epilepsy caused a massive seizure in April last year and took her to hospital on life support.

Four years earlier, she had gone to the DMV with her mother, Michelle, to get a state ID. Sara had autism and needed disability benefits and a bus pass.

There is an ID card application section that asks if you want to become an organ donor. (If so, a pink sticker is placed on the ID card.) Michelle didn’t think her daughter would understand what organ transplants were all about. When they got to the front of the DMV, she asked the clerk what to do.

The clerk asked Sara, “Do you want a pink sticker?”

Sarah did.

That’s how Michelle and Mario Herrera struck up a conversation with a transplant advocate at the hospital after deciding it was time to take their daughter off life support. From Sara came both kidneys, leg bones, skin and spinal fluid.

Her parents go to the transplant games. Likewise her siblings: Estrella, Stefanija and Ernie. They compete against other donor families in a trivia contest. Type of.

“We’ve practiced a bit, but we’re finding that we’re not very good,” said Michelle Herrera. She laughed. Winning isn’t why they leave.

“The rest of my life will be devoted to finding ways to honor her,” she said.

Sara Michelle Herrera

Sara Michelle Herrera

(Courtesy of Michelle Herrera)

They will be present at the opening ceremony, walk the 5K, pin a square on a memorial blanket for Sara. They will go to different events and cheer on the athletes.

“We want to show the recipients that the donor families are thrilled that they are doing well,” she said. “We are so happy that they are living their lives to the fullest.”

Public events at the Games include a Saturday morning parade along Harbor Drive in downtown San Diego. It will follow the same route used for the annual Holiday Bowl Parade and is expected to include marching bands, giant balloons and floats.

“We look forward to celebrating attendees, honoring those who gave life’s ultimate gift, and raising awareness of the need for more donors,” said Mark Neville, CEO of the San Diego Bowl Game Association. “It will be a heartwarming and magical event.”

His connection to the games is personal. A few years ago, he donated a kidney to a woman in Houston who used to be his family’s nanny.

He knows that every organ tells a story.

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