HOUSTON — Three years ago, Walt McGuire lay in an operating room, a bypass machine ticking away the 72 hours he had to survive after a donor heart failed. With every minute, hope faded that he would one day run on the track he had spent months gazing at from his Houston hospital room window.
But this week, McGuire raced around that blue track, competing against other transplant survivors in the Donate Life Transplant Games, a biennial, multi-sport event designed to raise awareness of organ, eye, and tissue transplants.
"To stand on this field, the feeling is so incredible because I didn't know if I would ever leave that room," McGuire said, pointing at Houston Methodist Hospital across the street from the track.
In these multi-sport games, hundreds of people who looked death in the face — in some cases, just months ago — are now able to run, pole jump, ballroom dance or bowl, often thanks to the generosity of a grieving family.
The games began in 1990, overseen by the Kidney Foundation. A decade later, the nonprofit decided it was too far removed from its core mission. So the Transplant Games of America was founded.
This year in Houston, 44 teams from around the country participated, and the games expanded to include poker and other less-rigorous activities. Unlike similar events or nonprofits, the games do not raise money for transplants. The money raised, about $2 million this year, is designed solely to raise awareness and inspire.
"Everyone that shows up at these games, whether it's a recipient or a donor, has a story and it's a story very similar to mine," said Bill Ryan, the CEO of Transplant Games of America, whose daughter, Michelle, was killed in a car accident at age 18. Her organs were donated.
McGuire, Ryan and others swap stories under the Texas sun, and visit hospitals to talk with those waiting for transplants.
Men and women, some wearing masks to protect against germs that can threaten a recipient, run around the Rice University track. They do 100 meters, 400 meters and relays. Nearby some pole jump. And while it might take two, three or four minutes to do a lap, for some it had once been unthinkable.
"I've already won," said McGuire, who came in sixth place in the 400-meter men's race with a time of 1 minute, 28 seconds.
In the end, the Utah-Idaho team won overall. The men's champion was Howard Bell, a liver transplant recipient from Southern California, Ryan said. Isa Stenzel, a double lung transplant recipient who was a member of the Northern California team, led the way for the women.
McGuire, now 49, first felt weak in 2005. He would get winded carrying his 3-year-old daughter up the stairs.
It would be almost a year before he was told he had amyloidosis, an autoimmune disease that is treated much like cancer. McGuire endured a multi-drug regimen that included chemotherapy and had a successful stem cell transplant. But the disease had ravaged his organs.
In December 2010, McGuire was informed he needed a triple organ transplant — heart, kidney and liver. The next month, he walked into the operating room. When he awoke, though, he learned the donor heart had failed on the operating table. Another was found at a different hospital two blocks away. And the new heart was so good it helped his own liver recover, avoiding a need for that transplant.
"The family had a motto of 'I will,'" he said. "Not 'I won't,' not 'I can't,' not 'I might,' not 'I'll try.' 'I will.' And here I am."
Plushnick-Masti can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/RamitMastiAP