MEET ADAM BURKHART: HEART RECIPIENT AND THREE-TIME TRANSPLANT GAMES PARTICIPANT

Adam Burkhart’s story

Zanesville, Ohio is home to 33-year-old, Adam Burkhart, his wife Kali and his two daughters. Six years after Adam was born, he was diagnosed with familial dilated non-obstructive cardiomyopathy, a genetic heart disease. Because Adam wasn’t the first family member to receive this diagnosis, his loved ones knew that he would eventually need a life-saving heart transplant.

At 17, Dr. Binkley of the Ohio State Medical Center said something to Adam that he would never forget, “It’s time to get serious about a heart transplant.”

Although Adam knew this day would come, he was terrified. He had so much life to live. In some ways, he felt grateful that he and his family knew this day would come. Not everyone in need of a heart transplant has time to prepare.

Happy, scared, nervous and very sad – these are the feelings Adam experienced after hearing a potential match was available. In 2000, just days before his 18th birthday, Adam received his heart transplant. Adam had been waiting at the OSU Wexner Medical Center for seven months for this news.

“I couldn't help but think that my life was going to go on because someone else's came to an end. It is a very hard concept to deal with at times. At the same time, I knew this was the only way I was going to go home and see my family again,” says Adam.

His donor’s name was Matthew, a 24-year-old who tragically passed away in a car accident. Adam and his family have met Matthew’s family a few times, and they keep in contact with each other. The Burkharts’ second-born-child, a girl they call “Mattie,” was named after Matthew.

“Without the loving decision of my donor family saying ‘yes’ to donation, I would not be here today. And in turn my two beautiful daughters wouldn't be here either. I’m also able to continue playing golf, which is a game I love so much,” says Adam.

Adam’s wife may not share the same excitement for golf as he does, but nonetheless, he golfs every chance he is allowed, err, gets. His family also loves to travel, but being a dad is by far the greatest gift Adam has received after his transplant.

The success of Adam’s transplant sparked his aunt Nancy, a registered nurse, to donate a kidney to one of her patients at the hospital. She’s just one example of the many incredible donor and transplant stories Adam has heard.

Adam has participated in three different Transplant Games. At this year’s games, Adam’s competitive nature will be put to the test in golf.  Adam is excited to participate in the Transplant Games again and says,  “One of the best aspects of the Transplant Games is that you may meet a living donor, or a heart recipient, or kidney, lung, pancreas, etc., but no one’s story is exactly the same. It feels very promising and gratifying to talk with others who have been affected by transplantation in one of many ways.”

As for people uncertain about registering as organ, eye and tissue donors, Adam says, “Please check into the facts and myths of organ, eye and tissue donation. There are a great deal of myths that don’t portray donation in the right light.”

ADAM BURKHART QUICK FACTS:

Age: 33

Lives: Zanesville, OH

Connection to donation community: Heart Recipient

Number of Transplant Games attended: 3

Transplant Games sports: Golf

If you could spend the day with any athlete, dead, alive, or fictional, who would it be?

“For me it would not be an athlete. It would be a coach. Mike Kzyzewski. I am a huge DUKE fan and I think the world of that man. His lessons on the court and in life are top notch. He seems like a great human being with a lot of great insight,” says Adam.  

Favorite athlete: “Oh so many...Christian Laettner, J.J. Redick, Paul Azinger, Jack Nicklaus, Eddie George, Roger Federer,” says Adam.

Favorite professional sport: “I’m more into college sports, such as Ohio State Football and Duke Basketball. In terms of professional sports, I would have to say golf,” says Adam.

Favorite quote: "Treat others the way you want to be treated"  -My father, Mike Burkhart

Meet Chris May: Double Lung Recipient and Three-Time Transplant Games Participant

Chris May is a three-time Transplant Games participant. He first participated in the games in 2010 in Madison, Wisconsin. His second Transplant Games was in 2012, and he came home with a silver medal in badminton. In 2014, he won two bronze medals, one in badminton and one in darts. For the 2016 Transplant Games, he plans to participate in bocce, cornhole, volleyball and darts. Now that he has three medals, his goal is to have five total – one for each of his four children, plus one for his donor family.

Chris first heard about the Transplant Games from fellow Team Ohio athlete, Tonya Gomez. Also a lung transplant recipient, Tonya inspired Chris when he was still on the waiting list, encouraging him to reach out and participate after his donation came.

Chris’s donation story starts in 1983 when at age of 13, he was diagnosed with Sarcoidosis, a disease that affected his spleen and weakened his immune system. Throughout his youth and 20s, Chris was able to manage the disease and remain otherwise healthy. However, by the time Chris reached his early 30s, his health began to decline. In a two- and-a-half year period, Chris developed pneumonia seven times and discovered Sarcoidosis had entered his lungs.

With just 36 percent lung capacity, Chris went to the Cleveland Clinic in December 2005, where doctors told him he was a candidate for a double lung transplant. Chris' condition was so severe he was given oxygen 24 hours a day and was placed high on the transplant list. Chris had to quit his job but kept himself busy doing light exercises and staying at home to watch his daughters.

Chris and his family received a call from the Cleveland Clinic at midnight on February 16, 2009, informing them of a match, three years after Chris was placed on the transplant list. Taken aback by the call and overwrought with emotion, Chris was barely able to utter “yes, I accept the transplant.” That day, he and his family drove from their home in Waterville, Ohio to Cleveland.

Chris needed two surgeries because doctors found a blood clot on the first pair of lungs he received. His second surgery was successful, and the transplant doctors later told Chris that his lungs were the worst they had ever seen. Doctors said Chris' lungs were in such terrible shape, had he not received the surgery, he would have only had two more months to live. His recovery was quicker than anticipated and within one month, Chris was back home.

After receiving his transplant, Chris felt a renewed sense of energy and was walking, talking and breathing on his own again.

"Without the transplant, I wouldn’t be here today,” says Chris. “I never thought that I’d be able to walk and talk at the same time! I now have been able to experience so much of life that I never thought that I’d be able to do. My oldest daughter is going off to college and I’ll be around to see her graduate. My youngest daughters are competitive athletes and I am able to see them play soccer and basketball. I have a son who is under two years old, who never would have been born had I not had the transplant. My goal is to see him grow into a young man.”

Chris is looking forward to participating in the 2016 Transplant Games and sharing the experience with thousands of other members of the donation community. Though he’s there for the competition, Chris’s favorite part of the games is meeting the other recipients and donor families.

“I love meeting everyone and hearing their stories. It’s both extremely touching and heartbreaking,” says Chris. “Every time life starts to wear me down, I think about the donor families I have met and it reminds me that I’m here for a reason. I don’t want to let the donors and donor families down.”

Chris would like to win a gold medal someday to give to his donor family. “I think of my donor often and send my donor family letters,” says Chris. “I’m so grateful for what they’ve given me, my family and my kids. I feel so blessed to be alive.”

Chris May Quick Facts:

Age: 46

Lives: Waterville, Ohio

Connection to donation community: Double lung recipient

Number of Transplant Games attended: 3

Number of Transplant Games medals: 3

Transplant Games sports: Chris expects to participate in volleyball, darts, cornhole and bocce.

Favorite quote: “Live. Love. Laugh. That’s what I try to live by now.”

Favorite professional sports: Football and baseball. Though he lives southwest of Toledo now, Chris is a Cleveland native and grew up rooting for the Browns and the Indians.

If he could spend the day with any athlete – dead, alive or fictional – it would be: Jesse Owens. “I grew up in Cleveland and loved watching the Olympics. As a history fanatic, I’d have to say I’d love to spend the day with Jesse Owens. He was more than just an athlete. He made a difference.” 

Meet Tony Schmalstig: Four-Time Transplant Games Participant and One-Time Kidney Recipient

Tony Schmalstig was born with a birth defect where one kidney was destroyed and the other kidney was badly damaged. When he was only one year old, doctors removed the destroyed kidney and repaired the damaged kidney. Despite this, Tony only had about 10 to 15 percent kidney function growing up and in the fall of 1983, Tony went into renal failure at 22-years-old.

Although Tony didn’t know it at the time, his family fought about who would be his donor. Tony was overwhelmed to learn that his 25-year-old older brother, Dennis, wanted to donate his kidney and was a perfect match. On March 16, 1984, Tony received his first kidney transplant from Dennis.

Before the transplant, Tony felt sluggish, tired, and he had no appetite. Two months post-transplant, Tony felt like a normal 22-year-old. The transplant had such an impact on Tony’s health, that he could play baseball and bowl again without any restrictions. He was also able to accomplish one of his biggest dreams – just three months after his transplant, Tony tried out for the Cincinnati Reds baseball team.  Although Tony didn’t make the team, it’s an experience he will always remember and cherish.

One of Tony’s favorite things to say to people now is, “I woke up and I know it’s going to be a good day.” This is his new mentality, because there was a time when he went to bed not knowing if he was going to wake up in the morning. “Every day I wake up and think about my brother and the sacrifice he made. I’ve been given this blessing and I’m going to make the most of it,” says Tony.   

This year will be Tony’s fifth Transplant Games. Tony participated in the games in 1998, 2000, 2004 and 2006. Tony competed in bowling and doubles bowling and received one silver and two gold medals. Without the games and Team Ohio, Tony wouldn’t have met his second wife, Victoria Holmes-Schmalstig, so he is eternally grateful for this organ donation community that brought them together.

During the games, Tony loves the companionship of being with the recipients, donors and families who have gone through similar experiences. “You become instant friends,” says Tony. Tony has a friend in Wisconsin that he has competed against in bowling four different times. His friend is currently undergoing chemo treatments, so Tony keeps encouraging him to get well so he can travel to Cleveland and bowl against Tony again. “It’s those types of friendships that you gain from the games which are so rewarding,” says Tony.

Tony Schmalstig Quick Facts:

Age: 54

Lives: Heath, Ohio

Connection to donation community: one-time kidney recipient

Number of Transplant Games attended: 4

Number of Transplant Games medals: 3

Favorite quote: “Don’t take your organs to heaven. Heaven knows we need them here.”

Favorite professional sport: Baseball

If he could spend the day with any athlete – dead, alive or fictional – who would it be? Lou Gehrig. “I have always been intrigued by Lou Gehrig because he became ill and tragically died in the prime of his life and baseball career. He was so very courageous in facing his illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), as was my sister, who died two and a half years ago of the same disease,” says Tony.

Favorite athlete: Tony Perez. “Tony Perez is my favorite athlete because we have the same first name and he was a great baseball player,” says Tony.

Team Ohio love story: In 2007, Tony and Victoria met and became friends through Team Ohio. In 2010, Tony and Victoria went to a bowling event with some Team Ohio friends and discovered they were both getting divorced. For Tony and Victoria, it was an instant connection, since they had so much in common. They started dating a week later and have been together ever since. Major baseball fans, they were married on a baseball field in the fall of 2015. Half of the people who attended Victoria and Tony’s wedding were people they met through Team Ohio, the Transplant Games and the donation community.

MEET JAKE SAUNDERS: LIVER RECIPIENT AND FIRST-TIME TRANSPLANT GAMES PARTICIPANT

Jake Saunders of Oregon, Ohio was just 4 years old when he underwent a liver transplant. Born with a condition called ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency, Jake’s body was unable to break down proteins, meaning he could not eat any form of dairy, grain or meat. Jake ate a very limited diet, and experienced seizures and comas that caused lasting brain damage and developmental delays.

“When the doctors told us that they had a liver match we were happy, but scared,” said Angela Saunders, Jake’s mom. “There had been two matches before that did not work out.”

The doctors assured Jake’s mom, dad and two older brothers that this liver, which came from a 10-year-old boy who passed away in an accident, would work.  Jake was kept alive on dialysis until the liver was transplanted.

Now, seven years later, Angela says the liver has been perfect. Jake, age 11, has experienced no complications or rejection. Despite the success, Angela notes that the entire situation is difficult to talk about.

“Jake almost died while waiting,” she recalls. “And the thought that another family lost their little boy is heartbreaking.”

Angela adds the family’s extraordinary decision to donate their son’s liver allowed Jake to not only live, but thrive.

“We thank them with all our heart and soul,” he said.

Angela said that since Jake received his transplant, his life has changed tremendously. He is now able to play with other kids, and enjoys riding his bike and playing soccer.  Jake can also eat whatever he likes, and loves a good steak or seafood meal.

Jake is very excited to compete in his first Transplant Games. At this year’s games, he will participate in bowling, track, cycling and swimming. According to Angela, Jake looks forward to sharing a special message on organ, eye and tissue donation.  

“Jake wants to tell others to donate life because there are so many people waiting for a life saving miracle. You will feel great knowing that you helped someone live.”

JAKE SAUNDERS QUICK FACTS:

Age: 11

Lives: Oregon, Ohio

Connection to donation community: Liver recipient

Transplant Games sports: Jake expects to participate in bowling, track, cycling and swimming.

Favorite quote: “If you’re not first, you’re last.” – Talladega Nights

Favorite professional sports: Jake loves boxing and lifting weights

If he could spend the day with any athlete – dead, alive or fictional – it would be: Rocky Balboa