Back in the Game

An unusual group of athletes reminds us to take action.

Photo: Linny Morris

Before August is over, you’re almost certain to be sick of the Olympics. The theme song, the five-ring logo, Beijing, Beijing, Beijing—it’s a good thing these games only come every two years. But you won’t have heard of another kind of Olympics, one that took place last month in Pittsburgh.

About 7,000 people were expected to attend the weeklong National Kidney Foundation 2008 U.S. Transplant Games in July, says Ann Kawahara, the Team Hawai‘i manager. An eight-person team of local athletes represented Hawaii in track and field, swimming, bowling, tennis, golf and racquetball. Each is an organ donor recipient. In addition to the athletes, the team is bringing with them living donors, some who have given an organ to strangers, others to family members. They are also bringing a few families of deceased donors.

In addition to the hours they spend training and the commitment to their sport, the Team Hawaii athletes have busy professional lives. Herb, for example, is a businessman. Roy’s taking computer classes. Ann’s a nurse.

While they have different experiences, I can imagine they must all feel incredibly grateful. As I write this column, 362 people in Hawaii are waiting for an organ transplant, and about 12 people will die in this state, each year, still waiting. What I can’t imagine is how it feels to get a call, maybe one in the middle of the night that jangles you awake, and have a voice tell you, Hey, you’re in luck. Mixed in with the jubilation, there’s got to be a gnawing sadness, too, knowing that some family just lost a loved one. 

Illustration: Jing Jing Tsong


I asked Rachael Wong, who received a kidney from a deceased donor in 2002, what that was like. She’d been struggling with lupus and kidney failure for 12 years at that point and “basically was just trying to stay out of crisis and reach stability, which was impossible.” Then she received her call about an available kidney. The sea change she experienced? Going from “surviving to being well in all regards.”

At the games, Wong planned to defend her gold medals in tennis and compete in racquetball. To her, the event is a celebration of life and health.

She’s never met her donor family. But she does write them a letter, twice a year, every year, and tells them how she’s doing. She notes, too, that other people are still waiting for an organ to transform their health. “For kidneys, it’s unique because there are alternatives [such as dialysis], but if there’s organ failure in the lung, heart, small bowel—there aren’t options to keep them alive. Their situation is more dire.”

There’s a stigma to talking about what we want done with our bodies when we pass on. Funny, isn’t it? We plan for our kids’ college funds, obsessively research the vacation we’re about to take, save for our retirement. But we don’t want to think about the trip, with a capital T, that we’re all going to take in the end. Even when a little advanced planning could turn us into a hero. (In the first half of 2008, 21 donors from Hawaii saved 63 people.)

If you have religious or other strong objections to being an organ donor, that’s one thing. But if you just haven’t bothered to check off the box on your driver’s license, why? (You can also call the Organ Donor Center of Hawaii, 599-7630, for donor cards, or visit If you haven’t spent five minutes talking to your doctor and family about your wishes, well, what are you waiting for?