HCHSA Insider: World Transplant Games in Houston culminates dream

When the news dropped on social media Wednesday morning that Houston had been chosen to host the 2021 World Transplant Games, Donna Esposito couldn’t help herself.

She started dancing around the house, she said, like a fool.

Once she finished her little celebration, her phone started ringing and the emails piled up in her inbox. People wanted to know what they could do to help; how they could volunteer.

“I sort of expected it,” she said, “because of knowing Houstonians and how they rise to the cause for everything.”

For Esposito, the manager of Methodist Hospital’s Multi-Organ Transplant Floor, the announcement that the World Games were coming back to the U.S. for the first time in 41 years was the culmination of a dream that started more than two decades ago when she took her first team to the 1994 Transplant Games of America in Atlanta.

It was at that first transplant event that she realized the powerful connection between transplant recipients and sports.

“It was truly a life-changing experience for me,” she said, ” I wasn’t even an athlete. I was just a transplant coordinator (in New Jersey) at the time and to see these people competing …”

One member of her team was a 32-year-old man who needed a heart transplant. He had about 10 percent of his heart function and could, literally, not get himself out of bed.

“We got him transplanted and nine months later we took him to the games in Atlanta and he was running track and playing basketball,” she said.

“It was amazing. His fiancée and I just sat the and cried for five days. This guy who could not get out of bed, was now running around a basketball court like nothing was ever wrong with him.”

Stories like those are around every corner on both the national and world levels where donors and recipients compete in a broad range of sports – from basketball to volleyball, swimming and track and field.

The World Transplant Games hold an annual event, alternating between Winter Games in even-numbered years and Summer Games in odd-numbered years.

The U.S. event, which is separate from the World Transplant Games, is held every two years.

Houston held the 2014 U.S. event and, yes, Esposito was one of the original driving forces. When she moved to Houston in 2011, she asked how many athletes were involved in the transplant games. She was told just eight.

“Houston has the largest medical center in the world so I said you must have a huge team,” she recalled. “People looked at me like I had three heads. I thought, why does nobody know about this?”

A number of phone calls and some research later, she set up a meeting with Harris County – Houston Sports Authority CEO Janis Burke to talk about Houston hosting the national games. By the time she and former Team Texas manager Brian Gilliam left the 45 minute meeting that had stretched to two hours, Burke was formulating plans to bid on those 2014 games.

The 2014 event had the largest attendance in history, including more than 800 athletes from Texas.

The 2021 event could be a record-setter as well. The first two World Transplant Games were held in England in 1978 and 1979 and came to New York in 1980. Since then, they’ve traveled the rest of the world, so 2021 will give American transplant patients who are hesitant to travel overseas a chance to compete against the world.

Amy Frackowiak, who manages Team Texas along with Esposito, received her kidney transplant in May 2009 and wanted to compete in the world games in Sydney two months later. Doctors said no, but she went on to compete in the world event in 2011 and 2017 and has been to every U.S. event since 2010.

“Even if they compete in the U.S. games,” said Frackowiak, “(2021) will be on a different level.”

One of the initiatives for the 2014 event was to promote donor awareness because, Esposito said, “without donors there are no transplants.”

At the time, Texas had about 4 million people on the donor registry and the goal was to have 8 million after 2014 games. That event, coupled with the Texas Department of Safety’s push to have drivers sign up as a donor when they renewed their licenses, pushed the number well past 8 million. Today over 11.6 million are on the Texas donor registry with 114,732 people on the transplant waiting list.

Some of those on today’s waiting list will be competing here in 2021 and Esposito knows all too well how important that will be.

“There’s something that happens to the athletes when they compete,” she said. “At that point, they really realize they can do anything.”

Which brought her back to 1994 and that 32-year old, who is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his transplant.

A picture of herself with him and his medal has had a place of prominence in every office she’s had since 1994. And not just for sentimental reasons.

“It reminds me,” she said, “of what really is possible in the world of transplantation.”

Melanie Hauser, a former sportswriter for the Houston Post, writes a weekly column sponsored by the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

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