Howard Nathan has attended every single National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games event since 1990. A NKF board member who is also CEO of Philadelphia's Gift of Life Donor Program, one of the largest organ procurement organizations in the country, Nathan joins NKF in celebrating the Games' 20th anniversary and recounts its success in showcasing the power of organ donation through athletics.
"Early on, so many misconceptions abounded, such as whether or not recipients of life-saving organs even survived, let alone if they'd be able to run around a track, do the high jump or lob a tennis ball. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the Transplant Games have visually told and retold the organ donation story."
Nathan's experience with transplant athletics dates back to 1982 when he organized a group of 19 recipients into a small team that competed in Greece at the first international Games. Nathan was hooked and so, when NKF took on the management of the U.S. Transplant Games in 1990, he jumped aboard immediately.
Nathan invested the time and money to organize a team from Philadelphia, explaining that it was "a great way to do some PR about organ donation while helping the athletes feel good about themselves and proud of their achievements." Team Philadelphia, which covers parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware and Central New Jersey, grew from 37 members in 1990 to over 800 at its peak. "The members of our Transplant Games team become our core volunteers. They go out into the community and speak to all kinds of groups about transplantation…they educate young and old to begin thinking about organ donation," says Nathan.
When he thinks about the 20 year-history of the Games, Nathan remarks that "besides the obvious growth from 400 to 8,000 participants, the event has become a richer experience for all over time. The organization of the athletic competition has improved and the addition of popular events such as the 50-yard-dash for the smallest recipients has helped offer something for everyone…adding the donor family and living donor components was also extremely meaningful." According to Nathan, the Donor Recognition Ceremony, honoring thousands of deceased donors, is a moving highlight of the event for all participants.
Once other local teams began forming in 1994, the participants' enjoyed publicly demonstrating pride in their home states. Collectible pins from every team and uniforms for the opening ceremonies' processional that highlight the local flavor, such as lobster hats for Team Maine and movie marquee t-shirts for Team Southern California, added to the fun.
Looking back, Nathan says the relationships forged at the Games are unforgettable. He receives personal notes from Team Philly athletes daily. He recently heard from a 1990 Games participant who just became a grandfather and another girl who ran the kids' 50-year-dash and is now a sophomore in college.
Looking forward, Nathan hopes the NKF's U.S. Transplant Games will earn the "recognition it deserves from the medical and transplant communities. This event is so important in terms of rehabilitation for the recipients on both the physical and emotional levels… I hope it will continue to grow in size and stature for at least 20 more years to come."