If you had asked Bill Keys 22 years ago if he thought that he'd live to see his 80s, chances are he would have said no. After suffering a massive heart attack in 1986 at the age of 59, his future looked grim. Today, at 81, he is the oldest transplant athlete competing in the National Kidney Foundation 2008 U.S. Transplant Games and he will take his place beside 2-year-old Abigail Dooley, the Games' youngest competitor, at the Opening Ceremonies on July 12, when the two will recite the Athlete Oath together.
The U.S. Transplant Games, which will be Bill's 7th and Abigail's first, are an Olympic-style sporting competition for people with life-saving transplants, including kidney, heart, lung, liver, pancreas and bone marrow. Athletes compete for medals in 12 different sports events, including track and field, swimming, bowling, badminton, tennis, basketball, golf and cycling.
Bill's heart trouble forced him to leave his job of 28 years as an auto mechanic and repair shop foreman for Philadelphia Electric. Following four years of hospitalizations for congestive heart failure and a gall bladder removal in 1989, he entered the heart transplant program at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia. In May of 1990, he received the heart of a 21-year-old who had died of a gunshot wound. Bill will compete in the swimming and track and field events.
Abigail Dooley was born on March 3, 2006 with a rare liver disease, biliary artesia. After several months of treatments and tests, it became clear that she would need a liver transplant in order to survive. Immediately Abigail's parents stepped up to be tested. Her dad turned out not to be a match. Amy Dooley, her mother, was about to undergo the testing when Abigail's grandmother, Sandi Grobelski, 52, volunteered to be her donor. Recalls Amy, "My mother asked me, ‘who was the person in your life you couldn't have grow up without?' I told her, ‘It was you, without a doubt.' And it was decided," says Amy. "My mother who has always been there for me wanted me to always be there for my daughter and so she said she'd be the one to go through the surgery. She is my rock."
The two entered the hospital and when grandmother Sandi awoke from the operation, her first words were, "How did we do?"
Bill Keys, who has had more than two decades to reflect upon his good fortune enjoys the National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant games on several levels. "The Games have shown me just how much and how many have been touched by transplantation," says Keys. "At each Games, I look for familiar faces from other teams and when I see them and greet them, the emotion is hard to describe. It means we've passed another milestone and we'll just keep looking ahead, good times or bad."
For tiny Abigail, the 2008 Transplant Games are her start. She's looking forward to joining her peers in the 50 meter dash, the softball throw, bowling and cycling events.