Transplant Games about life

Posted: Tuesday, June 25, 2002

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- In the painful, breathless years before Maureen Pecor received a new lung, cystic fibrosis made walking up a flight of stairs seem like climbing a mountain. But within five months of a transplant operation, she had hiked up six peaks in Vermont.

Nine years ago, Mario Azevedo could barely make it to school, as a bad kidney couldn't keep up with his growing body. Now, the 20-year-old plays on an intramural basketball team at the University of Tennessee after a successful stint in high-school athletics.

Transplant patients hold dear the newfound vigor that comes with a new organ -- so dear that many refer to the date of their operation as their ''second birthday.''

That renewed zest is bringing 8,000 organ recipients from around the nation to Disney's Wide World of Sports for the biennial U.S. Transplant Games. Four days of athletic competition, featuring sports such as track and field, basketball, tennis and bowling, begins Tuesday.

''It would be a waste if I didn't go,'' said Azevedo, who received his new kidney from his father in 1993.

Added Pecor: ''I think it's going to be awesome because I'm competing with people that have been there and done that. It's going to be kind of to see where I'm at compared to other people who have gone through (transplants).''

Some famous organ recipients will be lending moral support: actor Larry Hagman (liver), former NBA star Sean Elliott (kidney) and Olympic snowboarder Chris Klug (liver).

''The games shows that there is an active life after a transplant,'' Hagman, 70, said in a telephone interview from his home in Santa Monica, Calif.

Showing that people can lead a full life after a transplant is a goal the games' founders want to emphasize.

''It really is a lifesaving therapy for lots of people,'' said John Davis, CEO of the National Kidney Foundation, which founded the games in 1990.

''The biggest problem in this area of medicine is that there aren't enough donors. We can't transplant people that we should,'' Davis said.

In the past decade, the number of cadaver organs donated nationwide has remained fairly steady at 5,000-6,000 annually, while the number of people who need transplants has jumped from about 20,000 to 80,000, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

An average of 16 people die every day while waiting for a transplant of a vital organ, such as a heart, liver, kidney, pancreas, lung or bone marrow.

''It's just kind of ridiculous,'' Hagman said of the shortfall.

Pecor, a high school business teacher in Melbourne, Fla., nearly became a statistic.

She waited more than two years for a new lung, her breath slowly draining away. ''Toward the end, I was just praying that I'd make it,'' she said.

A donor finally was found in April 2000, and a successful transplant followed. But that was only half the struggle, as Pecor first balked at the mental hurdle of living without the oxygen tank that had kept her alive for so long.

But she soon began to lead an active life, beginning with a climb of 4,393-foot Mount Mansfield five months after the operation.

''It was unbelievable to be able to hike up a mountain and breathe,'' said Pecor, 38. ''Before, I couldn't even walk and breathe.''

On the anniversary of her transplant, she ran a celebratory 5K. She's run another dozen races since then.

''My breathing's better than it has been in 22 years,'' Pecor said.

Elliott knows what it's like to go from ill to athletic. For most of his NBA career, he suffered from focal glomerulosclerosis, a disease that prevents the kidneys from properly filtering waste from the blood.

After receiving a kidney from his brother in August 1999, Elliott went on to play another 72 games over two seasons before retiring.

''I had been playing for seven years with a bad kidney, but my body had acclimated,'' said Elliott, now a television commentator with the San Antonio Spurs. ''After the transplant, you think you're feeling good -- but then you go beyond that.''

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