Organ Transplants and Other Extreme Sports Feats

Organ Transplants and Other Extreme Sports Feats
Alonzo Mourning played four full seasons in the NBA after a 2003 kidney transplant.

Ivan Klasnić spent Saturday on the bench against Manchester City, the soccer powerhouse and current first place club who many assume will win the English Premier League. Some of Man City's players draw individual salaries as large as the payroll of entire teams.

So, it isn't surprising that strugglers Bolton would rest their best players. Klasnić leads Bolton's scoring this season, albeit with an unremarkable seven goals.

More remarkable is this: Klasnić is playing in the game's most elite league after receiving a kidney transplant in 2007. He also became the first player to participate in a major tournament, UEFA's Euro 2008, after a transplant.

Seems as though Klasnić recovered well after going through a lot. In January 2007, at age 27, the Croatian striker experienced acute kidney failure, necessitating immediate dialysis or an eventual organ transplant. Shortly thereafter, the footballer received a kidney from his mother. Two days after the surgery, it was reported that the surgery failed to remedy the situation as Klasnić 's body rejected the new organ. Just two months later, he underwent surgery a second time to replace the rejected kidney, this time receiving a kidney from his father. Luckily the second was a success, and after a normal recovery Klasnić would be cleared to continue playing soccer.

Although Klasnić might be the only live organ transplant recipient in the pro sports circuit now, he isn't the first pro athlete to return to sports after such an operation.

In November 2003, Miami Heat star Alonzo Mourning planned for his retirement from the NBA coupled with the news that his kidneys were failing from a life-threatening kidney disease known as focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. Mourning's cousin, a US Marine named Jason Cooper, offered to be a donor to Mourning and was tested to see if he was eligible. Deemed a match by doctors, Cooper donated his kidney to Mourning in mid-December of 2003.

After recovery, the seven-time All-Star continued his playing career and was traded by the Heat. But after completing a stint with the New Jersey Nets, Mourning came back to Miami to help the Heat win its first and only NBA title in 2006.

Mourning's experience came less than four years after another NBA star, Sean Elliott, had gotten a kidney transplant as a result of the same disease. Elliott spent most of his career with the Spurs, winning an NBA championship in 1999, before retiring in 2001 to become a broadcast voice and NBA analyst.

Here in Chicago, kidney transplants and sports collide as a topic in the stadium halls and within the medical community. Northwestern Hospital's Kovler Transplant Center stands at the forefront of this lifesaving procedure, having performed almost 1800 live kidney transplants as of March 2012 with no complications for any of the donors.

Heralding the cause, too, is Chicago White Sox announcer Ed Farmer. Farmer grew up on the near South Side and attended sports powerhouse St. Rita High School before embarking on an 15-year career in Major League Baseball as a relief pitcher. In the early 1990s, Farmer became the radio color commentator for the Sox, and after 20 years with the club is still active in the organization.


White Sox announcer Ed Farmer talks about "The Greatest Gift" and how a kidney transplant improved his quality of life.

The issue --kidney transplants and the lives they save-- has even has found its place at the cross hairs of sports and entertainment.

In the recent Michael Rapaport documentary film, "Beats Rhymes & Life", the acclaimed actor, director and rabid rap music fan profiles the hiphop band A Tribe Called Quest and their decade-long career at the pinnacle of American music. Quest has a rep for digging into hard grooves with lyrics that entail a  library of sports references. While exploring the history of the music group the film also addresses the tribulations of rapper Malik "Phife"  Taylor. After battling lifelong diabetes and his untimely "sugar addiction" for years, Phife received a kidney in a operation that saved his life just a few years ago.

The kidneys are vital organs that clean the body's blood supply, and in healthy humans they clean the body within about four minutes. A recent New York Times article cited that humans are born with two kidneys but can live a normal life with only one. Strangely though, when kidney failure occurs, both kidneys tend to fail at once.

Not all recipients of kidney patients suffer from acute failures or relatively rare conditions like focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. It is often a result of the slow degradation that comes from having diabetes. When this occurs, patients will ultimately need dialysis treatments to stay alive. Dialysis typically demands that patients show up three times a week for up to four hours, hooked up to a machine that draws the blood out of the body, before cleaning it and later reinserting it, in what can be an exhausting process.

The thing about being a live kidney donor that people don't know is that being a donor is in no way extreme in its effects on the donor. Virtually anyone who is in tip-top health can donate and surgery is minimally invasive, with a hospital stay little more than a day. Likewise there is no required change in lifestyle or diet, with few precautions. And donating a kidney does not put you at risk of kidney disease of renal problems later in life.

This all beckons the question: Why do I know so much about kidney transplants? Here's why: I'm about to take part in one, as a donor, to a friend in need. I have known Jeff for years, as a former coworker and fellow baseball fan. A few years ago he became a diabetic, and has been on dialysis since his kidneys failed in mid-2010.

After a few months of due diligence and the screening process, I've been approved to donate a kidney to my friend and the operation will occur next Friday.

Of course (as there always is with me) there is a sports link. My friend is an IHSA high school football referee, and officiates some of the same games I cover as a writer for ESPN Chicago.  For sure, I will look forward to seeing him on the football field again, come September.

While I'll miss out on a crisp beer and ridiculous fun on St Patrick's Day, the good news is that within a day I'll be back to my usual activities. More importantly, Jeff can cut out of his routine of dialysis treatments and get on with life.


You can learn more about becoming a live donor at the Northwestern Hospital Kovler Center's website.

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  • You're a good man, Andy!

  • I, too, was a kidney donor at Northwestern Hospital. That was 8 years ago. I spent less than 36 hours in the hospital. I have had no problems since then. My friend is doing great! Our kids now call each other "kidney cousins." Good luck to both of you.

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