When he gets to the Transplant Games this week, Harold Mintz will be happy to be an observer, an audience member, and not an athlete.
Mintz, 44, an Arlington resident, will join a group of 35 from the Washington region heading to the games, opening today in Orlando, Fla. The biennial event serves as a tribute to organ transplant recipients who have survived, as well as organ donors living, and the families of donors who died to save others.
The Washington group includes a 7-year-old heart transplant recipient, a 63-year-old kidney recipient, a married couple who have both received organ transplants, along with three Arlingtonians.
But Mitz’s journey to the games marks the beginning of a new era for the games – he is one of the first living donors to give up an organ for a complete stranger. Mintz donated one of his kidneys in 2000 to an anonymous donor, a goodwill gesture that had no direct payoff, he said, aside from a sense of pride.
The trip to Orlando will be a humbling experience, he said, but it will also be a chance to see success stories. "I want to let my daughter, who’s 12, know that there are paybacks for choices," he said, "to let her see the successes, the happy-ending stories."
<b>MINTZ’S EFFORTS</b> to donate one of his kidneys got their impetus some dozen years ago, with the death of his father, he said. It had nothing to do with kidney disease, but it got the ball rolling.
Over the next few years, he started to piece together an idea, until one day in 1997 he had the idea of donating one of his kidneys, to whoever needed one, whoever was at the top of the waiting list.
At work one day in Springfield, he called the National Capital Kidney Foundation, to get information about donating a kidney. "It was all about cadaveric donations," Mintz remembered. "I said, I want to donate while I’m alive. They said, ‘To who?’ I said, whoever, and they said, that’s not legal."
Mintz found himself ahead of the law on the issue. But he got in touch with the Washington Regional Transplant Consortium, a local group pushing to get anonymous, stranger-to-stranger kidney donations allowed under federal laws. "I got a call a couple of years later," Mintz said. "They said the law passed."
He subjected himself to a battery of physical and mental tests, and found himself coming out the other end months later with glowing recommendations. He even convinced his wife, Susan, to support his hopes. Soon enough, it was December 2000, and Mintz checked himself into the hospital. He awoke, hours later, short one kidney.
That night, he learned who had been the recipient of his kidney –an Ethiopian immigrant, a wife and mother, who lived in Springfield and had been waiting 11 years for a transplant. His kidney performed well in its new home. "Once they got it in, it started peeing up a storm," Mintz said.
That act, a year and a half ago, has brought Mintz some local and national celebrity, and earned him a sense of pride. But it has not gone to his head.
"I sound like such an angel," Mintz said. "I’m not. I make mistakes. I flip people off at traffic lights. But I did the right thing here."
Mintz wants to show his daughter the effects of that, and hopes others will see, too. Mintz was prompted to act by movies and stories of other donors, and hopes he can inspire another anonymous donation. "That’s the domino thing," he said.
He will be walking in the opening ceremony of the Transplant Games, as a donor, and competing in a five kilometer run. "I’m not completely comfortable walking in, letting people clap for me," he said. But soon enough, Mintz, along with his family, will be sitting on the sidelines, clapping for transplant recipients who are the center of the games.
<b>SUE BRUNO,</b> a kidney recipient also traveling to the games, said she will be a little humbled too, by the presence of donors like Mintz, and by the families of deceased donors.
"I’m excited to be involved," said Bruno, 31, an Arlington resident who works in human resources.
"It makes me a little nervous, to be honest," she said. "I haven’t been in an environment with someone who’s a donor. It’s a little nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time."
Bruno will join Seth Kramer, 28, of Arlington, a double lung transplant recipient also competing in the games. Bruno will be competing in volleyball, track and field and the 5K race, while Kramer will swap Bruno’s volleyball for the swimming competition.
Bruno will be participating in the games for the first time, although not from a lack of interest. "I’ve been trying to go for the last few years," she said.
It’s important to go, she said, to prove that the need for a donated organ doesn’t doom someone to a life of ill-health. Bruno was born with only one kidney, and that began to deteriorate in her early teens.
She got onto the waiting list for a kidney in 1987, when she was 16, but she got lucky – one became available in a few short weeks. Since then, she has been in good health, and wants to demonstrate that in Orlando.
"It’s a way of saying to the world that we’re not misfit toys," she said. "We’re capable of doing what everyone else does, and probably with a little more heart."
<b>THAT’S PART</b> of the message of the games, said Jim Straight, team manager for the Washington contingent and an employee of the National Kidney Foundation of the National Capitol Area.
But the event is many things to many people. Medical education for nurses, support groups for many including donor families, living donor recognition ceremonies and daily celebrations and parties are all part of the event, Straight said.
The Games have grown in popularity, especially in recent years, Straight said – due in part to the event staying at Disney World for the 2000 and 2002 games.
"In 2000, we had 1,700 athletes and 4,500 others," he said. "This year, they’re expecting 10,000 people, so probably about 3,000 athletes."
But the games have to grow, to meet the demands of their cause. There are some 71,000 people on waiting lists to receive transplanted organs nationwide, Straight said, and some 2,100 people in the Washington region.
"Everyday, about 16 people die while they’re waiting for a transplant."