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Gifted gold

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The gift of a new liver has given Jane Donnelly what she calls her ‘extra days’, and she’s used them to win gold at the Australian Transplant Games.

She hopes her experience will encourage people to have a conversation with their loved ones about becoming an organ donor, particularly if they were to die unexpectedly.

A team of Kiwi athletes headed to the Gold Coast in October to compete in Australia’s most inspirational sporting event – the 16th Australian Transplant Games.

Honouring donors

What makes these competitors unique is that they have all had heart, lung, liver, kidney or pancreas transplants and they are competing in honour of their donors.

The Australian Transplant Games are held every two years. They are an opportunity for transplant recipients to get together and challenge themselves by competing in a range of sporting and recreational events.

Jane, a nurse in her early sixties, is sure that without the liver transplant she received in Auckland she would be dead.

It was over a period of about three years that Jane’s health deteriorated. Eventually, she was diagnosed with cryptogenic liver disease, the cause unknown.

It made her very tired but she kept working as long as she could. She went ahead with building a new home on the outskirts of Christchurch to replace the cold, quake damaged inner-city house she was living in.

Woke up from coma

She was taken to Auckland but became too sick for a transplant and went into a coma for about 60 hours. But she surprised everyone by waking up.

The next day she received the liver of a young person who had died after being in a coma. Family and friends supported her through the recovery period.

The only medication she takes are the anti-rejection drugs she needs to take for the rest of her life.

Not a person who plays the invalid role, Jane determined to leave the medical side to the professionals and focus on good nutrition, plenty of sleep, a social life and goals.

She is still working in nursing, doing two nights a week at a rest home plus some agency work.

Dreamed of riding again

As her health recovered the cyclist of 20 years dreamed that she might ride again – to feel the breeze on her face and the sights and scents of being out in the country.

Jane training with a broken scaphoid bone.

She told her surprised doctor she would like to compete in cycling at the Australian Transplant Games on the Gold Coast in October 2018. She became the first games competitor to have received an adult liver transplant here in New Zealand.

Earlier this year Jane began training, doing a mix of road cycling, pilates, mountain biking and walking up hills.

Several weeks into training she injured her wrist at home. She then found herself having difficulty changing the gears so, blaming the bike, bought a better one, which improved her riding times.

It was only later that x-rays showed her wrist was broken. Medical staff put the plaster cast on in a way that allowed her to keep riding. She got the plaster off a couple of weeks before the Games.

In the meantime, she had no idea what the venue would be like or the competition.

It turned out to be an outside track that included areas of native bush and undulating terrain.

Competed in two races

Jane competed in two women’s races, both with fields of about 15 competitors. In the 5 km time trial she was second for women across all ages and first (won a gold medal) in the women 60 and above with a time of 11 minutes.

In the 30 km race she was second overall with a time of 1 hour 12 minutes and first (another gold) for women aged 60 and above.

I loved the excitement, the anticipation, the challenge I gave myself of entering the games.

“There was sheer pain and suffering to rebuild muscle strength, but there was also fun and happiness on the day and it turned into tears of joy at the end!”

Keen to attend worlds

Jane with her two gold medals in the 30km road race and 5km time trial.

Home with two “beautiful medals” Jane is now keen to compete in the Worlds next year in Newcastle, Britain.

Jane is eternally grateful to her donor and the decision their family made. She believes she owes it to them to make the best of her extended life and also to be a good role model.

She wrote a letter to thanks to the donor’s next-of-kin. For a couple of years she wrote again on the transplant anniversary. She had the hope that one day she might meet the next-of-kin but that person has since died.

Jane says she kept her old liver in the freezer for several months before planting it at the base of a new rose garden. It’s her garden of remembrance.

“It grows great roses.”

First games held in 1988

First held in Melbourne, in 1988, with 150 transplant recipient competitors in five disciplines, the games have grown to include more than 700 competitors (transplant recipients and their families, living donors and donor families) from six countries.

Athletes can participate in a variety of sports ranging from swimming, badminton and cycling to lawn bowls, darts and golf. There’s even an Australian ‘ninja’ course for the kids.

Thirty-two athletes (including 14 transplant recipients) represented New Zealand at this year’s games, among them Jane, Tauranga lung recipient, Kristie Purton, and Rotorua heart recipient, Bryan Eckersley.

It was Kristie Purton’s first transplant games after having a double lung transplant only a year ago. She says she was determined to give it her best in memory of her donor.

“I wasn’t expecting to get any medals, but I came away with eight – four gold, three silver and a bronze.

I’m stoked, it was the best thing I’ve ever done!”

Bryan Eckersley, an Australian Transplant Games veteran, has competed in six Australian Transplant Games after having a heart transplant in 2005. He says he always enjoys the games and managed to achieve his goals and then some at the games, winning six medals in total.

Two hundred people (transplant recipients, their families, live donors and donor families) walked from Broadbeach to the sand sculpture at Surfers Paradise to raise awareness about organ donation and promote the Transplant Games.

Sheryl Power, the New Zealand team manager, says the Transplant Games are a wonderful way to raise the awareness of organ donation and show the difference transplantation can make in people’s lives.

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For more information:

NZ Transplant Games Association click here

Information on organ and tissue donation visit Organ Donation New Zealand click here 

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