U.S. Transplant Games, July 2008, Pittsburgh. In a qualifier for the 100-meter dash, the eventual winner, Will Jay of Knoxville, has finished his sprint in about 12 seconds and is walking back. "As I'm going, I see this young man from my heat," he recalls, grinning at the recollection. "It's 10 seconds, 15. He's still running. We started at the same time. And when he finished, he seemed more ecstatic about running than anyone else in the race. He didn't want to win. He just wanted to be alive and running that race. I just keep remembering him. I gave him high five.
"I could only imagine what he went through to be a part of those games."
Jay, 29, started earning his own medical qualifications for the games, which are held every two years, in 2004. Up to then, he'd spent his life as a natural athlete, including three years running track at University of Tennessee, by his own admission a typical "cocky" sprinter—the kind of guy who didn't even think about signing up as an organ donor. "I'd just taken a teaching job at Cedar Bluff Middle School," he says. "That was right before it started."
It. Feeling tired. Then total weakness. A little yellow. Severely jaundiced. And no one seemed to have a reasonable explanation. All the while, another family tragedy was unfolding. "At that same exact time, my 30-year-old sister was diagnosed with cancer. She had just had a baby. She passed away a year later. She was sick and dying of cancer when I became sick and wasn't sure what was wrong."
In October 2004, after a liver biopsy, Jay got his diagnosis: primary sclerosing cholangitis or PSC. "The doctor told me that day, ‘There's no cure,' and the treatment would be a liver transplant." Just six months later, in April 2005, Jay had to quit his teaching job and get in bed. And start waiting for that phone call. His parents, who had just cared for his sister in Atlanta until her death, moved to Knoxville to wait with him.
It was sudden, July 16, and they had to rush to Vanderbilt Hospital right away. The early news was good—Jay moved from the hospital to a nearby subdivision in Nashville four days after the operation. Ten days out, the major esophageal bleeding began, and his parents rushed him back in. He remembers his principal and a teacher coming to see him. "They were there because they thought I was going to die," he says matter-of-factly. "The doctors told my parents, ‘We're praying, as well.'"
August 5, 2005, 20 days later, second liver transplant. Jay was weak, his body beat up. "I don't know the order of any of this stuff," he says. "At one point my kidneys failed and I went on dialysis. I had a staph infection. Pneumonia in one lung. The other lung collapsed when I was on a tracheotomy."
It took months, one trauma after another. "Everybody at that hospital knows me now, even the janitors," he says. "The ICU nurses saved my life I don't know how many times. One time a doctor told a whole group of his students, ‘Take a look, here's a person who's malnourished.' I wanted to jump up and say, ‘You have no idea! I've been so much worse.'"
Finally, he got so much better he could leave Vanderbilt—six feet tall and 110 pounds. "I looked like a POW," he says.
From March of '06 to the end of May, he did physical therapy. "I got myself back to 150 pounds and I was almost as healthy as I am now." In June '06, he took his first steps on the track. Two years later, now 160 pounds, he picked up golds at the U.S. Transplant Games in each event he entered: the 100- and 200-meter dash, and the long jump—even though he hadn't done that event since 11th grade. "I don't care that I ran on a track and won some medals," he says. "I did it because... I don't have to keep telling them I'm normal. I'm going to show them. I'm fine!"
He didn't train for the U.S. Games as much as he just tried to stay in shape, he says, jumping in every now and then with the high school and private students he now helps to coach at track. But he plans to excel at the World Transplant Games in Australia in 2009, which is a much more competitive event, and to do that he'll need to work out the way he did in the old days.
"If you'd seen me in college, I was chiseled," he says. "Being an athlete your whole life, you kind of worship your body. I thought I was perfect in some sense, and I didn't want them to cut part of me out. I wasn't sure I'd be okay with having someone else be a part of me and I thought I'd be very conscious of having an organ from someone else.
"But I'm not. Instead, I feel like I can be perfect having whoever this is with me."
Jay says he felt uncomfortable on the awards podium at the Games, and he draws out his medals only when somebody asks. He doesn't enjoy the personal attention, but he's willing to tell his story, over and over, because an estimated 19 people die each day, waiting for transplant organs that never come.
"I'll never understand why my sister died so young, but it makes it very clear that I've had a second chance," he says. "If someone did not decide it's okay to live on in someone else's body, I would have died. It's that simple."