Out in Malaga, Spain, in the last week of June 2017, something quite extraordinary took place. At least it would have seemed extraordinary, if not impossible, when I was a youngster in the early sixties. A global athletic event was organised for some 1350 men and women and yet 2700 people took part. For this was The World Transplant Games (#WTGMalaga2017) where every athlete could celebrate their athleticism along with their greatest benefactor, their donor – perhaps living but more likely deceased – who had provided the organ and the opportunity for these athletes to live, thrive, throw, run, jump, swim – compete!
To put a personal perspective on this, my wife Karen – now 62 – was 55 when she received another person’s liver. She had suffered with a rare condition called Auto-Immune Hepatitis for a decade. This had, perhaps consequentially perhaps not, developed into a tumour in the liver. Whilst chemotherapy arrested that development, medical history suggested there could be a later return of the cancer. Time was of the essence and her esteemed consultants at Kings College Hospital, London, put her on the transplant register. No guarantees were offered and the average waiting time was 18 months to 2 years. She might of course have died whilst on the list. Many do!
That which may well have saved her was the decision to put her on the shorter list of non-heart-beating liver donors – livers from someone who, tragically, had died suddenly but whose organs had not yet deteriorated. This of course is full of unknowns. Unknown patients with unknown medical histories and unknown liver quality in each case. So it was that Karen and I raced in an ambulance car on eight different aborted occasions from Glastonbury, Somerset, to Kings only to find that the liver quality wasn’t quite good enough. Wonderfully, the ninth was! It was from a 45 year old man who had died suddenly and to whom, alongside his family, Karen will be forever grateful. There is, on the one hand, a frustration that we don’t know more about the donor. We wrote a letter of gratitude to his family using the hospital as an intermediary in line with protocol but, perhaps understandably, the donor family didn’t respond – feeling that anonymity was preferred. Whilst that is all understood, on the other hand wouldn’t it have been great to have let them know that Karen won 4 gold swimming medals and 1 silver within her age-group at these World Championships and that his excellent liver had played a crucial part in allowing her to be a World Transplant Games Record Holder in the 50 metres freestyle (60-69 age-group)? And Karen was not alone of course: throughout the week of The Games, one found that every athlete has their story: often tragic or altruistic for the donor, usually uplifting and inspiring by the recipient.
The games, more generally, offer an almost old-style approach to sport with genuine and well-trained commitment to winning, linked with a celebration of everyone’s ability to participate. Certainly no ageism here and for many outside the medals, the Olympic ideal of ‘its not the winning but the taking part’ applied. After all, every competitor knew that without an organ donor they wouldn’t be competing, they would in all probability be dead. But not only that, they knew that in their one body there were two competitors: both contributing to the success achieved whether by winning medals or by being the highly-cheered final finisher in the 5000 metres race. As it happened, the biggest cheers of the week, both moving and heart-felt, were for the team of living donors and donor families. To have them there was the icing on an already wonderful cake.
This 21st World Transplant Games in Malaga was a well-organised and well-supported event. Facilities were stunning for the competitors from 52 different countries taking part in 17 different sports. Tennis / badminton / squash rackets, golf clubs, cycles, ten-pin bowling balls, darts (presumably in the plane’s hold), were all among the specialist equipment flown across. As is so often the case, Great Britain had started this idea back in 1978 with home games in Portsmouth and, on this occasion in Malaga, they still dominated with 152 golds, 80 silver and 100 bronze, beating USA into 2nd place in the medals table of 52 countries.
2019 will see a return to Great Britain when Gateshead / Newcastle host The Games. Malaga will be a hard act to follow but note-taking Geordie representatives out in Malaga headed home confident in their ability to keep the games developing as they have for nearly 40 years. At one point in the crowd, a British fan was heard to say, “Unlike other countries, we haven’t got a song to sing.” I suggest they start practising ‘The Blaydon Races’ now!
A final thought? September sees EDQM – European Organ Donation Day. Isn’t it about time that all parts of the United Kingdom got in line with those enlightened places where there is an opt-out process rather than an opt-in (which, of course, would mean that everyone is opted-in to organ donation unless they choose to opt-out)? Simple!#PoweredbytheGiftofLife