Our first Transplant Games: what we learned from attending the 2022 Transplant Games of America

Former StaffTransplant News

Written by Alexis Bobu, Scientific Writer, Houston Methodist Hospital Department of Surgery and J.C. Walter, Jr. Transplant Center  

“Meeting transplant patients and families for the first time was meaningful and fulfilling, adding depth to the work that we do.”  

The city of San Diego hosted the 2022 Transplant Games of America on July 29 – August 3, 2022 bringing back the world’s largest celebration of life to the transplant community after being canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The live event, produced by the Transplant Life Foundation and occurring every two years, is a gathering of the transplant community – living donors, recipients, family members, those currently on the waiting list, allied health professionals, vendors, caregivers, and many other supporters to engage in a unique experience of bringing the transplant community together.  

The mission of Transplant Games of America is “to increase awareness of the life-restoring importance of organ, cornea, bone marrow, and tissue donation through the lives of the athlete-recipients and the lasting legacy of their donors”. This is demonstrated by honoring donors, recipients, and their family members and integrating the entire transplant community to celebrate the benefits of organ donation. To show the health possible after transplant, 2,000 transplant recipients and donors competed in events like cycling, tennis, swimming, and golf, with the winners receiving medals similar to the Olympics.  

Participants from all over the U.S., and even internationally, came with their teams to compete bringing with them a token of home to share with others during the pin trading event. This event serves as an opportunity to share stories and learn from others that have also embarked on or conquered the journey of transplantation through the exchange of pins. Pins symbolized the states and areas people came from. We were able to collect pins from other Transplant Games attendees to decorate our lanyards.  The atmosphere at the event was joyful as we celebrated the gift of life and exchanged heartfelt words of encouragement.  

Our Patient Engagement Research Lab, in collaboration with Sanofi, attended Transplant Games to launch the Digital Storytelling Project and provide resources for kidney transplant donors, recipients, and their family members. We were chosen to represent our lab at the Transplant Games.  As public health students who had not worked in transplant before, we did not know what to expect from Transplant Games. It turned out to be more than just athletic competitions and included social events such as a coffee house event – an open mic forum to share personal experiences and words of advice, a parade, a living donor celebration, and a quilt pinning ceremony. These activities raised awareness of the needs and benefits of organ donation and honor those that have provided others with the ultimate gift of life.  

The San Diego Convention center was buzzing with people as Friday night kicked off the Welcome Event. Each day continued to grow with more attendees as more and more people started arriving from all over the US, Canada, and some international locations.  At the Convention Center, we met hundreds of people.  We met one woman who donated her kidney and part of her liver at Houston Methodist, just 11 months apart! What struck us about this encounter was her husband who stood by her side beaming with pride as he shared her story and called her his hero. We were greatly touched by their story and connected over food recommendations in the city of Houston as they reminisced over a handcrafted beef patty burger with crunchy peanut butter and bacon. Another woman we met, shared her transplant journey and how it inspired her to create a podcast for the transplant community to help others reconnect after transplantation. She also hosts once-a-month virtual transplant mixers for the community to unmask and discuss taboo topics, feelings, and trauma, and provide social support to improve the overall quality of life posttransplant.  

Our most touching moment occurred when we had the chance to listen to the unfiltered stories behind organ donation. The most moving was hearing a father sharing his experience of making the choice to share the organs of his daughter, moments after receiving the heart-wrenching phone call from the hospital that she had passed away. The listeners cried with him as he shared that this was his first and only child. Despite unanswered questions and pain, he decided to choose to do good and to give the gift of life to someone else. That night, another person shared that “because someone said yes in their darkest hour, I got to say yes to a transplant.” We learned that it’s not just the life that you save but everyone else that you impact when you choose to donate, serve in the transplant community, provide education, awareness, and advocate for others.  

What we can learn from this experience is how powerful it is to have impactful events such as these for the transplant community to heal and celebrate the gift of life. The things we do matter and what we choose to do with the available resources we have is just as important. These are the communities we fundamentally serve, and it was great to meet them.  

To learn more about Transplant Games, go to: https://www.transplantgamesofamerica.org/About