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A U employee and transplant recipient Ron Matross with his bike.

One year after a liver transplant, Ron Matross, a University senior analyst, celebrated his 50th birthday and won a bronze medal in cycling at the U.S. Transplant Games.

Hope and competition: The U.S. Transplant Games

The U.S. Transplant Games

By Deane Morrison

From M, summer 2004

In January of 1995, Ron Matross was slowly walking a hospital corridor with an IV pole, his liver only days away from complete failure, when he spied a clipping on a bulletin board. The story concerned a cyclist who competed in the U.S. Transplant Games, a biennial olympiad for athletes who have received lifesaving organ transplants. A cyclist himself, Matross thought he might have ridden his bike for the last time a few weeks before on New Year's Day. "I said, 'That's going to be me,'" says Matross, a senior analyst in the office of the University's executive vice president and provost.

And so it was. On January 15, Matross woke up in Fairview University Hospital with a new liver, the gift of the original owner's family. The next year, he celebrated his 50th birthday and won a bronze medal in cycling at the U.S. Transplant Games in Salt Lake City. He now has five silver and bronze medals, and he'll be gunning for more when the games come to the University of Minnesota July 27 to August 1.

Begun in Indianapolis in 1990, the U.S. Transplant Games bring together athletes, donor families, living donors, and friends to celebrate the second chance at life made possible by transplants and to call attention to the continuing need for organ donations. Fifty teams from around the country will compete in track and field events, cycling, swimming, racquetball, golf, table tennis, basketball, tennis, badminton, bowling, and volleyball. Athletes are grouped by age and gender, and children as young as 2 can enter competition, with the caveat that all athletes must be certified by their doctors. Matross is part of the Upper Midwest team, which includes athletes from Minnesota and the Dakotas.

"The games are a great morale booster," says Ron Matross. "You also realize there are other people out there like you staying active in spite of worse problems."

The National Kidney Foundation (NKF) sponsors the games, which this year also mark the 50th anniversary of the first kidney transplant. In 1954, doctors John Merrill and Joseph Murray headed a Boston team that transplanted a kidney from a living donor to an identical twin. Murray has been named honorary chair of the 2004 Games.

The University has done more than its share to further the science of organ transplants. In November, the U's Transplant Program celebrated its 40th anniversary--a history that began with its first successful kidney transplant in 1963. University surgeons have performed a long list of "firsts" in the field, including the world's first pancreas transplant in 1966 and the first successful human bone marrow transplant in 1968. In 1997, they became the first to have successfully transplanted all intra-abdominal organs (liver, kidney, pancreas, and small bowel) from living donors.

While lifesaving, receiving a transplant often means side effects, some quite debilitating. Matross went through "every drug in the Physician's Desk Reference" before Dr. John Lake, now head of the University's liver transplant program, switched his medications to stop bone loss, lower his blood pressure, and cut his chances of developing cancer. Through it all, the goal of competing in the Transplant Games kept him going.

"The games are a great morale booster," says Matross. "You also realize there are other people out there like you staying active in spite of worse problems. The games are there to motivate patients and to provide role models for other people who have had transplants and get depressed."

Every day in the United States, about 17 people die for lack of a donated organ, says Ellie Schlam, public relations director for NKF. Another 83,000 are on waiting lists. But after every Transplant Games, there's an upsurge in interest in organ donations, she says.

"At the 2000 games in Orlando, there was a woman who had lost her baby when he was a couple of hours old," recalls Schlam. "She gave away all his organs and later met the recipient of her son's heart. The little boy was about 4 years old at the time, and he ran the 50-yard dash."

Right from the start, the games recognize the central importance of donors and their families. During the opening ceremony, living donors and families of deceased donors march into the arena after the athletes. Eugenia Steffens, manager for the Upper Midwest team, remembers the event at the 1998 games at Ohio State University. "For 45 minutes, athletes and spectators stood and applauded donors and donor families as they entered in procession," says Steffens. This year, families who have donated loved ones' organs will also gather in the St. Paul Cathedral for a ceremony of appreciation for their contributions. Living donors will be recognized in Northrop Memorial Auditorium.

The importance of organ donation cannot be overstated. "I got to see both kids graduate from college, and I saw my daughter get married last year," says Matross. "It's a wonderful thing, when somebody dies, that a family, in its most anguished moment, does something to save somebody's life."

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