Grief and Gratitude at the Transplant Games

Kathleen Sheffer avatar

by Kathleen Sheffer |

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I don’t know how to begin to explain the experience of being at the Donate Life Transplant Games of America. It’s been all I’d dreamed of, and so, so much more.

To say that my emotions have overwhelmed me would not do justice to the intensity of that overwhelmingness. Emotions have overpowered me before. OK, I’ll admit, it’s happened quite often. However, this time it reached a new level — well above the emotional overwhelmingness I felt immediately before and after my heart-lung transplant. I’m reliving all of the emotions I had in those moments, along with new layers of grief and gratitude that I’m finding here.

My favorite part of this event by far has been meeting donor families. These are families who, in the midst of tragedy (and my goodness these stories are tragic beyond comprehension), decided to pursue organ donation. They then chose to knit themselves into the transplant community further. I am in awe of the bravery they show by attending these games and supporting the athletes. But our communal losses do weigh heavily on me.

In the last three days, I have met so many new people and heard countless stories. They’re mixing together in my mind, and it’s even harder than usual to recall names, let alone table tennis scores. My immunosuppressant medications affect my memory, but this week I’m blaming trauma rather than chemicals.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure it was a liver recipient who expressed the following words to me. He told me that we have to remember that the gift of life is not just about climbing mountains and winning gold medals. Living can mean a chance to see new grandchildren born, but also to see friends die. We’ve got a second chance to experience the ups and downs of life. Real life includes heartbreak (check), loss (check), and injustice (check). 

I’m writing in bed right now: my body sore, my head aching, my eyes puffy from multiple days of sobbing publicly into one of the six packs of tissues I’ve grabbed from sponsor booths (so far). I have gratitude for the pain. What a miraculous blessing it is to have a pea-sized blister on my big toe from playing too many hours of badminton!

From left: Heart, heart-lung, double-lung, and liver recipients competing in badminton at the Transplant Games. (Courtesy of Kathleen Sheffer)


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