High in the Swiss Alps, in the little town of Anzere, 34 children from around the world, aged 6 to 17, were preparing to ski down a 45 degree slope in a revered competition that at one time none of them could have dreamed of being in.
It was a perfect day for the climax of the World Winter Transplant Games: the Nicholas Cup.
The weather was calm and clear, the sun dazzling on the pure white snow. The course was treacherous, however, hard ice in places, difficult to dig in the edges of the skis to cut the angles round the gates and more difficult than for the usual run of skiers because, a week earlier, none of these children had ever been on skis. Until then, some – such as those from Tunisia, Hong Kong and Israel – had never seen snow. “I falled over a few times at first,” one small face said proudly. “But I’m alright now.”
Day 1: First hesitant steps.
But the real challenge was of an order of magnitude greater than all that. All of them had once been so ill that their only cure was an organ transplant: a new heart or liver, kidneys or lungs to replace the ones that were dying inside them.
Some had been desperately sick at birth – yellow or blue or a lurid shade of green. One had kidneys the size of peas. A third had to be fed through a tube and, says his mother, “for the first two years he never laughed.” Some could not walk across a room without stopping for breath. Others had lived normal lives, until felled by a virus that at first seemed no more severe than a headache. The first that one father knew of a problem was a scream in the night as one of his daughters heard her younger sister collapse on the floor and then kept her alive for forty minutes as the ambulance crew talked him through the CPR procedure.
For many of these children any form of exercise, let alone a competition mixing risk with athletic agility, was physically impossible. On top of that the years of dependence could have eaten away fatally at their self-confidence. Yet, on the day of the race, one by one the little figures appeared at the starting gate, high on the mountainside. Some came down with what the commentator charitably called “a racing snowplow” style and one or two held on to the instructors. But most tackled the course with assurance and a few with insouciance.
Day 7: “What’s the problem?”
The triumph, however, was collective: these are not sickly lives prolonged by an experimental medical procedure but children who, if anything, perform better than other kids because they exercise and eat more healthily and, having learned at close quarters how precious life is, are determined to make the most of it.
The competition was started by a liver recipient, Liz Schick, a British-born mother of two living in Switzerland who, like so many recipients, wanted to say ‘thank you’ to the world and has done it in an unforgettable way. As one 15-year old girl, who had a transplant when she was 2, and has been shunted between homes to wherever the appropriate medical treatment could be obtained, said afterward to her mother, “This was the best thing I ever did.”
From Reg Green’s book “87 And Still Wandering About.” 2016. www.authorhouse.com.