Sports after Organ Transplantation: Fit for life!!

Dr. Smriti Sharma Bhatia,
Assistant Professor, Miranda House, University of Delhi

What happens after organ transplant? Is one relegated to a life full of medicines, regular checkups or there is more than that. Does the person live in the continuous fear of developing complications, can the person lead a normal life? How to live a full and healthy life after organ transplantation? How to come around the feeling that life is not over and has just changed…these kind of doubts and questions keep on plaguing the mind of an organ recipient.

What best way to be fit for life than participate in sports or games. But sadly, people do not associate a person having received an organ like kidney or heart with any kind of strenuous activity or sports. This is a major misconception though. There are so many examples of people taking sports after transplant and in the process motivating others and raising awareness about the cause of organ donation. It is more than participating in a sport for them. It is a personal journey of overcoming self-doubt and making the best of the second chance that life has given them. These people tested boundaries and participated despite overwhelming physical odds.

Let’s take the example of Reena Raju from Bengaluru. She is Karnataka's first woman recipient of a heart donation. Reena would become India's first woman organ transplant recipient to take part in a World Transplant Games meet. She will represent India in badminton (mixed doubles) and 100-metre run at the 21st edition of the biannual event at Malaga, Spain. When Reena Raju was 25-years-old, she was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), a degenerative heart condition. She has come a long way now and her zest for life is an inspiration to all.

Reena Raju before and after transplant

Reena has been an athlete since her teens and is an example that it is possible to bounce back to a normal life post organ transplant. But she advises one to be cautious and disciplined. In an interview given to a magazine she is quoted as saying “We have to be on medication throughout our lives. We have to have frequent blood tests and anti-organ rejection medication. It has been eight-and-a-half years since I had my surgery and I have been following a routine diligently”. Along with her, Balveer Singh and Dharmendra Soti from Uttar Pradesh are the two other Indians taking part in the eight-day biennial event organized by the World Transplant Games Federation (WTGF).

Another inspiring story is that of Golfer Erik Compton. He has had two heart transplants. His first transplant came in 1992, when he was 12. He went on to play golf at University of Georgia and turned professional in 2001. But his heart condition -- viral cardiomyopathy, in which heart muscle inflammation prevents the organ from functioning as it should -- returned as an adult, and in 2008 he had to undergo a second transplant. During his rehab he felt motivated to return to the sport. It required tremendous courage and motivation. But Compton made it back on the professional tour. In 2011, he even won the Mexico Open on the Nationwide Tour. But his greatest achievement came in 2014, when he came out of nowhere to tie for second at the U.S. Open. He was also awarded the The PGA TOUR Courage Award. 

The amazing story of Chris Klug also merits a mention. Klug started playing only two months after a liver transplant. By the four month mark, Klug had returned to the World Cup Circuit. He won a place in the Olympic Games where he earned a bronze medal. This was the first and so far only time a transplantee had competed in the Olympics. He also won a bronze medal, and lit the torch at the 2002 National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games. In 2004, Klug released a book called ‘To the Edge and Back: My Story from Organ Transplant Survivor to Olympic Snowboarder’. He is an active supporter of organ donation and recently founded the Chris Klug Foundation and Donor Dudes to spread awareness of the need for organ donors. Interestingly, Klug has represented the United States in the Olympics three times, two of them after the liver transplant.

University of Queensland student Montague Summers set three world records at the World Transplant Games in South Africa, despite having a bone marrow transplant after treatment for leukaemia.

World Transplant Games Federation was established in 1978. It is a worldwide organization with representation from more than 60 countries. It conducts two events – namely the Summer and Winter World Transplant Games to celebrate organ transplantation. There main aim is to raise public awareness of the importance and benefits of organ donation by demonstrating the health and fitness that can be achieved post-transplant. Also, they enthuse all recipients to remain fit and healthy post-transplant. They have introduced various education programmes to provide assistance to organ recipients so that they can cope better.

It inspires the organ recipients to attempt towards full rehabilitation through exercise and healthy living. It is also a platform for them to show gratitude to those who donated them the organs.

In India though this concept is in infancy but organizations are doing their bit to raise awareness. As part of their awareness programmes, Narmada Kidney Foundation organizes Transplant Games every year which invites kidney donors and recipients from across the country. More efforts are needed in this direction as the Games experience is a very positive one for organ recipients. For them it is celebration of life, not, a reminiscence of bad health and hospital beds. It is a realization that their health is in their own hands which is an empowering thought for them and the family.

“The value of life is not in its duration, but in its donation. You are not important because of how long you live, you are important because of how effective you live.”

Myles Munroe