Transplant Games draw U students and faculty

More than 1,500 donor recipients competed in the events.

by Emily Kaiser

After receiving a liver transplant, there were days when Ron Matross thought he would be in a wheelchair and unable to walk.

But last weekend the senior vice president of Academic Affairs and University provost competed in the U.S. Transplant Games, which the University hosted.

More than 1,500 athletes gathered in the Twin Cities starting Wednesday for a week of competition, celebration and remembrance at the National Kidney Foundation 2004 U.S. Transplant Games.

The games, which take place every two years, marked the 50th anniversary this year of the first successful organ transplant. Any U.S. citizen who has received an organ or tissue transplant is eligible to compete in the games.

Matross participated in the cycling races Saturday, marking his fourth time competing in the U.S. Transplant Games.

The road to the games was not an easy one, Matross said.

In 1987, Matross was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic liver disease that causes the organ’s failure. In 1995, he collapsed and was forced to stay hospitalized until he received a liver transplant on Jan. 14.

“I woke up Sunday in the intensive care to the sound of the football playoffs and I tell people that I knew I wasn’t in heaven because the Vikings weren’t playing,” Matross said.

In the months following the surgery, Matross dealt with other problems related to the transplant. Drugs he took after the transplant resulted in osteoporosis, which led him to fracture his back two months after the transplant.

“I was in terrible pain for three or four months, but by the next summer I was out of that and did my first transplant games in Salt Lake City,” Matross said.

Participating in the games each year is proof of how far he has come, Matross said.

“You really begin to appreciate the cliche of one day at a time, but it is no longer a cliche to you,” Matross said. “Every day you are walking and breathing is great, and every day you are able to do something athletic is even better.”

Matross placed fourth in the 1K cycling time trial and the 20K race.

For spectators, the games are a time to remember loved ones who have passed away and to celebrate the lives of people who have been saved by organ donors.

At the cycling races Saturday, Team Nevada wore buttons with the picture of Terry Snow, a 19-year-old who died after suffering severe head injuries in a 1998 motorcycle accident. The button shows him smiling and sticking out his pierced tongue.

His parents, Kathy and John Snow, from Riverside, Calif., came to the games to support Tracy Copeland, an athlete in the games who received Terry Snow’s liver after his accident.

“We had decided to say a prayer to meet someone (who received an organ) and Tracy answered our prayers,” Kathy Snow said. “She is an amazing person and a very avid athlete.”

Copeland realized she was sick in February 1998 when she noticed her eyes were yellow. By March 9 of that year, she was in a coma and received a liver transplant two days later.

Copeland met the Snow family on the one-year anniversary of their son’s death.

“Words cannot describe what it’s like to meet your donor family,” she said. “They were able to make that decision in the midst of their grief to donate, and I really owe them my life.”

With the support of fellow Nevada athletes and the Snow family, Copeland rode through the finish line, placing first in the 20K race, throwing a thumbs up to the crowd of cheering onlookers.

As a part of the games, the National Donor Family Quilt was on display at the Radisson Metrodome Hotel. The quilt is meant to memorialize donors, such as Terry Snow, who have given organs or tissue at the time of death, Kathy Snow said.

“As a donor family, we were able to create a block of the quilt to remember him,” Kathy Snow said.

University students volunteered at various competitions around campus.

Debbie Bonnes, a physiology junior, volunteered at the racquetball games Thursday and said she was amazed by the atmosphere of the games.

“It’s wonderful to watch,” she said. “Some compete very athletically and some are much slower, but everyone is coming together.”

John Renwick, a graduate student in health informatics, volunteered during the swimming competitions Thursday.

“(The athletes) are competing with each other, but they are also competing against their own difficulty of working with their own bodies,” he said. “The crowd is so positive and always cheering for the last person to finish.”

More than 6,000 spectators attended the opening and closing ceremonies and other events, said Ellie Schlam, National Kidney Foundation spokeswoman.

For Matross and other athletes who have competed in past games, the event is a time to reunite with friends.

“We are all just grateful to be here and see the same people we saw last time because it means we are all doing OK,” he said.