Organ recipients honor donors and protect "gift" by staying fit
You could say Bill Heckman's heart is still in the Seattle Marathon, even though Bill himself won't be able to be there. Heckman was 43, training...
Seattle Times staff reporter
You could say Bill Heckman's heart is still in the Seattle Marathon, even though Bill himself won't be able to be there.
Heckman was 43, training for his second Seattle Marathon on a road near Arlington late one afternoon in October 2001 when a passing truck's mirror struck him in the head, killing him.
That night, surgeons at the University of Washington Medical Center began transplanting Heckman's heart into the chest of Ron Adkins, a 53-year-old Seattle post-office supervisor whose own heart was failing fast.
Five years later, Adkins will take the heart out for a spin at Sunday's Seattle Marathon, walking the 13.1-mile half-marathon course.
Adkins, who would have never considered participating in such an event before his transplant, now is part of Team Transplant, a group of UW organ recipients who honor and protect the living gifts they've received by keeping themselves in shape.
This year, Team Transplant will field more than 30 organ recipients to run or walk in the marathon or half-marathon. They'll be joined by 160 friends, family members and UW medical staffers.
"By doing this, I've had less problems with my transplant than I would have had," says Adkins, who suffered a heart attack in 1988 and was in and out of hospitals for years. Before the transplant, he struggled to walk a few dozen feet.
Getting around Seattle during the marathon
Bus service will be rerouted Sunday. See Metro Online for details, http://transit.metrokc.gov
Start times will be staggered between 7:15 and 8:15 a.m. Marathon events will begin at Fifth Avenue North and Harrison Street near Seattle Center. By 10 a.m., marathon participants will be out of the downtown retail core. I-90 reverse lanes (center lanes) will be closed from 5:30 to 11:30 a.m. The Capitol Hill area will be affected until 3 p.m.
Source: Seattle Department of Transportation
Team Transplant, now in its sixth year, was the brainchild of Alysun Deckert, a UW Medical Center dietitian with a background in exercise science. She was also an Olympic-caliber marathon runner.
Deckert believed training for a half-marathon would help organ recipients realize how helpful exercise could be and showcase the success of organ transplants. So she often shows up at patients' bedsides after their transplants, recruiting them to her "team."
Mari-Jo Fraser, 35, a Bellevue woman who received a liver transplant in 2003, was in bed for more than five weeks after her operation. She had no muscle tone and had to learn how to walk all over again.
"I'm laying there, thinking about being able to get out of bed, over to the bathroom, and here this woman comes in and says, 'They want you to run a half-marathon,' " Fraser recalled.
"Yeah, you think she's crazy! Who's on the drugs here?"
First, Fraser laughed. Then she reconsidered. "That would be sort of cool," she concluded. So she signed up.
"It's an incredible feeling, a very emotional feeling, training with all these people who have had transplants, and a couple who are waiting," Fraser said.
"It changes you. You notice the trees change color. I never noticed that before. In life, you don't slow down enough to realize it, until you come to a halting stop."
On Sunday, she plans to run the half-marathon. It's part of a deal she made. Her liver, from an unknown donor, keeps her alive. Now, the rest is up to her. "I feel like it's my job to keep it thriving and going," she said.
Adkins says he feels a similar calling. And now he figures he's got a really good heart.
How to become an organ and tissue donor
Register online www.livinglegacyregistry.org
Call toll-free 877-275-5269 and request a brochure to fill out and return.
Say "yes" when renewing your driver's license
Residents who already have a heart or the word DONOR on their driver's license are automatically added to the Living Legacy Registry.
Source: The Living Legacy Foundation
Heckman had not only been a serious runner, he'd climbed Mount Adams 11 times.
"He never wore out — it was just weird," said Heckman's life partner, Flo Gaskill of Puyallup. "You'd think, 'Is he ever going to stop?' "
Heckman was a quiet, gentle man with a quirky sense of humor — a "giver" who always helped others enjoy the outdoor activities he loved, Gaskill said. When he died, Gaskill knew what Heckman wanted, because they'd talked about it.
"He had no fear of dying," said Gaskill. "He said, 'If there's anything left, I want it given away, and the rest cremated — and fed to the fishes.' "
A few months after the transplant, Adkins began feeling so good he thought he'd do something unusual: begin training for something athletic.
He walked a half-marathon in Olympia in the spring of 2002. Later that year, he signed up with Team Transplant.
Meeting by accident
Two years after his transplant, Adkins wrote a letter to his donor's family. "It was the hardest letter I've ever written," he said. "How can you say thank you for an organ donation where someone had to die?"
Gaskill, too, struggled for words as she wrote back. "You lost someone you love dearly," she said. "How do you share that?"
The letters were sent through the regional organ donation coordinator, and the rules required that they only correspond by first name.
Then, in 2004, Adkins was staffing a Team Transplant booth at an organ-donation event in Seattle. A woman stopped to chat. After a few minutes, Adkins realized it must be Gaskill's daughter.
They hugged and cried. Then Gaskill arrived. More hugs. More tears.
Then Adkins' wife and daughter came by. More tears, more hugs.
"I was overwhelmed with emotion," Gaskill recalled. "It's strange and powerful. You stand there and look at someone and know that your loved one — even though they're gone — their heart is keeping someone alive."
Now the two families visit, and share pictures and stories. Sunday, Gaskill and her daughter will be at the half-marathon, cheering Adkins on.
"He honors Bill every time he does this," Gaskill said. "Bill is probably looking down and laughing: 'See, I still get to do it!' "
Adkins marvels that the two families ever met. "It was all by accident," Adkins said.
Just like that night in 2001.
The night he got Heckman's heart.
Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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