LIVINGSTON, NJ — In preparation for the “Transplant Games” in Cleveland, Ohio this June, more than 100 members of Team Liberty, a program of the New Jersey Sharing Network Foundation, gathered at Saint Barnabas Medical Center (SBMC) on Sunday for a celebratory sendoff meeting only weeks before they prove to thousands that organ recipients can not only compete on a National Level, but also educate thousands about organ donation.
All over the world, patients are dying too soon while waiting for a transplant and less than .5 percent of registered organ donors are committing to their decision to donate. Team Liberty will convene again at the 2016 Transplant Games of America from June 10-15 to promote the success of organ transplantation, to raise awareness for the urgent need of organ and tissue donation and to honor donors and their families who have given the gift of life.
Organ, tissue and cornea transplant recipients and their families, donor families, living donors and transplant professionals from across New Jersey, the New York City area and Connecticut give their time to promoting organ donation through Team Liberty. As a transplant physician, Dr. Harry Sun, Associate Director of Transplant Surgery at SBMC, said that it inspired him to see former patients in the SBMC Islami Auditorium on Sunday knowing that their lives have changed for the better.
“It’s extremely rewarding to see former patients doing so well with transplants and thriving,” he said. “This is extremely important for Barnabas Health and the transplant department to bring awareness to organ donation and overall transplants in general. It’s a pleasure and honor to be here, to be a part of this process and to really get involved with organ-donation awareness.”
Team Liberty Co-captain Michael Strusiak, who will compete in basketball and ballroom dancing at the Games, is a kidney/pancreas recipient who not only owes his life to a 19-year-old girl who tragically lost hers in a car accident in 2007, but also spends the new life that she gave him advocating for organ donation in her honor.
Strusiak, who speaks regularly across the state about his experience as a Type 1 Diabetic for 37 years who was eventually diagnosed with cancer, now has four daughters and two grandchildren. Because of his donor’s gift, Strusiak was able to walk two of his daughters down the aisle and will soon walk a third.
“Without her great gift I would never do that. That’s why I’m spreading the word, so that hopefully we’ll get the donor registry higher and higher,” said Strusiak, who has one daughter working full time at the Sharing Network because of him. “And that’s what we’re doing as a team. As teams from every state come around, we honor our donors and try to promote education about transplants.”
Strusiak said that everything he does today, he does for the 19-year-old girl who saved his life. He was only eight months out of surgery when Strusiak competed in his first Transplant Games and has competed every two years since then. Strusiak’s co-captain Michael DiPiano, also a kidney/pancreas recipient competing in Shot Put at the Games, has been promoting organ donation for nearly 19 years and is also one of the co-founders of the High School Heroes Program, which educates high school students about transplantation.
According to Strusiak, every state has a team that sends both donors and recipients to compete for gold, bronze and silver medals—but he said it has little to do with competing and more to do with showing their donors what they’re able to do because of their generosity.
“It takes a lot of time, but in the long run people save lives and that’s what we’re trying to do,” said Strusiak. “We’re thinking back and paying it forward—that’s the key.”
On Sunday, 48 transplant recipients and seven living donors who will be participating in these great events, as well as eight donor families whose loved ones said “yes” to organ donation, bonded over their transplant experiences.
Team Liberty’s athletes will compete in the 5K, 10K, swimming, track & field, bowling, badminton, tennis, basketball, volleyball, table tennis, ballroom dancing, singing competition, golf, Bocci, darts, Cornhole and trivia. According to the co-captains, Team Liberty has grown in leaps and bounds and is currently the largest it has ever been.
In fact, the 2016 Transplant Games of America is said to reach between 10-20,000 participants this year in comparison to the approximately 8,000 that usually attend.
This year is also unique because the Games will feature a “Quarter-century Quell” honoring organ recipients who are more than 25 years out of surgery at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.