Transplant patients vow to bring awareness as athletes
August 3, 2018
By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
Northeast Mesa residents Randy Shepherd and Jill Bowers are walking advertisements for organ donations.
Shepherd, who had a heart transplant four years ago, and Bowers, who underwent two kidney transplants, are part of the 24-member Team Arizona who is traveling to Salt Lake City for the a biannual Donate Life Transplant Games of America.
Participants compete in events like basketball, track and field, ballroom dancing, golf, swimming, Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, trivia and a virtual triathlon from August 2 to August 7.
The games are for solid organ recipients who are at least seven months post-transplant and have a signed release from their doctor. In recent years, tissue and cornea recipients and living donors have been allowed to compete in their own divisions.
Bowers, the former principal at Mesquite and Greenfield junior highs, is going to play tennis, “which I’m never good at,” and bike. She added pickleball as well.
“The main reason I want to participate in the games is for the families, particularly the ones who lost a child or parent,” she said.
“I want them to see us and know we have a second chance at life. Even though I had a living donor, we thank you for being so generous at a very tragic time in their lives. Because of that, look at us. We’re here competing. It’s not about winning. It’s about being there.”
Bowers was hospitalized in 1992 with migraine headaches and erratic blood pressure.
“Nobody had high blood pressure in my family. Nobody had kidney issues,” she said. “I was young and single. I didn’t get married until I was 41. I had a bad diet. I was on the pill. I was a smoker. I didn’t pay attention.”
She was also working 16-hour days as a first-time principal at Mesquite. Work consumed her life.
Six years later, on June 3, 1998, the symptoms destroyed a kidney, forcing her to have a transplant. Her husband, George, was her donor.
“Everybody says, ‘Oh, you guys matched,’” she said. “No, we did not. He’s a blood type O, which is a universal donor. We matched on nothing.”
She had his kidney for 14 years before it started failing. That warranted a second transplant on July 25, 2012, this time by a former eighth-grade student, Katie Faber Moorhead.
“It overwhelmed me,” she said. “There were about five people who put in to be my donor and she happened to be the first.”
Gilbert Public Schools, she said, treated her and her husband well during the transplant.
“My husband was a principal there, too,” she said. “They said, ‘Whatever you guys need, we’ll cover you.’”
When she returned to work, she and her husband spoke to schools about transplants and kidney function.
“Our message was to take care of yourself,” she said. “It really does make a big difference.”
The Tin Man
Shepherd is picking up basketball for the first time in years, something he can do now, thanks to a heart transplant four years ago.
“We’re just going to go all out for six days and then come home and take a nap,” he said with laugh.
Shepherd – whose family collects Tin Man memorabilia because he, too, needed a heart – required a heart transplant after having rheumatic fever as a child and again when he was 17. In his late teens, he had open heart surgery to replace his valves and that lasted for 18 years.
“The build up of scar tissue caused my heart to just get bigger and bigger,” he said. “It was in bad shape. I thought it was time to get checked. I thought, worst-case scenario, they’re going to have to replace those valves again.
“When the doctor said, no, I needed a whole new heart, it took me back.”
His wife, Tiffany, said the family relied on their Mormon faith and each other to get through the troubling times. Tiffany, Randy and their children kept a vision board, and created index cards with lists of things they were going to do with their children when Randy recovered.
“We tried to not have a hard time at the same time,” she added. “We would say out loud the things we were grateful for. I really feel strongly that having a grateful heart is necessary because it helped us transition out of darkness and despair.”
Shepherd, a plumber, is hoping to raise awareness by participating in the games.
“I want to show people what can happen post-transplant,” said Shepherd, who routinely goes on 11-mile mountain bike rides. “Let’s say someone isn’t sure about donating organs. If they can see the recipients and see what kind of life is possible for that person on the other end, they just may do it.
“People who may need a transplant can see the end result of that and hopefully it’ll make the news easier.”
For more information about the Donate Life Transplant Games, visit transplantgamesofamerica.org.