Stories of Hope and Sacrifice: The Transplant Games Come to San Diego

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

Eryn Roberts’ left kidney, for example. The La Mesa resident was 27 when she decided to donate 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 over 100,000 people in the United States waiting for organs,” said Roberts, who works as a training and support specialist for a local startup. “I can’t do anything when I see something bad happening. It would be like watching someone drown.

The operation took place five years ago in North Carolina. It went well. Its recipient, Tommy Lee McCaman, left the burden of dialysis behind and spent time with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He might have been on his way to San Diego for the Transplant Games had he not caught COVID and died in December 2020.

His son, Michael, arrives however. Coming from Durham, NC to cheer on Eryn Roberts, who is entered in half a dozen events.

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

(Photo courtesy of Eryn Roberts)

Launched in 1990, the Transplant Games are held every two years. It’s their first time in San Diego. Organ recipients and living donors will participate in 20 events ranging from traditional (athletics, swimming, basketball) to recreational (cornhole, ballroom dancing, Texas Hold ‘Em poker).

Usually 42 state teams sign up — several have athletes from multiple states — but ongoing coronavirus concerns have kept a handful from Alabama, South Carolina, New Mexico and Tennessee from coming. this time.

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

Also present will be the families of the donors (living and deceased), as well as transplant specialists, caregivers and people waiting for organs. Organizers expect around 10,000 people to attend six days of activities starting July 29. Many events are open to the public.

Medals will be awarded, but the main objective is to raise awareness about transplantation, to show the wider community that people who have received organ, eye or tissue donations can continue to lead active lives. . And to show donors and their families what donations have brought. What they mean.

It is, according to the organizers, “the greatest celebration of life in the world”.

The Quarter Century Club

In the summer of 1994, when Laura Warren McCarty was 8 years old, she fell ill. She couldn’t keep food down. His kidneys were failing.

She was put on the transplant list. A perfect match turned out to be close: Her father, Ray.

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

She attended the Transplant Games in 2004 when they were in Minnesota, and when she saw they were in San Diego this year, she signed up again. She does the 5 km walk and participates 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 hone her skills.

Her parents come out of Colorado to watch her. “They’re just happy to see me involved,” she said – happy that she’s still 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) her sister Sheryl. Ray Warren donated a kidney to Laura 28 years ago.

(Courtesy of Laura McCarty)

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

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

For many attendees, events like this are the highlights. Stories are shared, friendships forged, sacrifices honored. Tears flow – some happy, some not.

There are commemorative pin trading sessions, some of which are custom-made. People bring in quilts and quilt squares that are displayed as tributes to specific donors.

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

“And you see the families of donors who are no longer with us, who can see what it means for the organs of their loved ones to continue to live. It is a healing experience for them.

The Herrera family is impatient.

A pink sticker

Sara Michelle Herrera lived in Lakeside and made friends wherever she went. She enjoyed music, art lessons, swimming, road trips, and the Mango Dragonfruit drink at Starbucks.

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

Four years earlier, she had gone to the DMV with her mother, Michelle, to get an ID card. Sara was autistic and needed ID for disability benefits and a bus pass.

There is a section on the ID application that asks if you want to be an organ donor. (If you do, a pink sticker is affixed to the ID.) Michelle didn’t think her daughter would understand what organ transplants were. So when they got to the front of the line at the DMV, she asked the clerk what they should do.

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

Sarah did.

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

Her parents go to the Transplant Games. Just like his siblings: Estrella, Stefanija and Ernie. They will compete with other donor families in a competition. Kind of.

“We train a bit, but we find out that we’re not very good,” said Michelle Herrera. She laughed. Winning is not the reason they go there.

“The rest of my life is going to be spent finding ways to honor him,” she said.

Sarah Michelle Herrera

Sarah Michelle Herrera

(Courtesy of Michelle Herrera)

They’ll be at the opening ceremony, walking in the 5K, pinning a square on a memorial quilt for Sara. They will go to different events and cheer on the athletes.

“We want to show recipients that donor families are thrilled to see them 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 the participants, honoring those who gave the ultimate gift of life, and raising awareness of the need for more donors,” said Mark Neville, CEO of the San Diego Bowl Game Association. “It will be a warm and magical event.”

His connection to the Games is personal. He donated a kidney several years ago to a Houston woman who worked for his family as a nanny.

He knows: each organ tells a story.

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