Tiger balm, table wars and transplants

Last week I had the privilege of attending the winter World Transplant Games in Switzerland. Not that I have had a transplant myself, but I went as a supporter. I was fortunate enough to be able to escort a young patient who attended a children’s ski camp as part of the games. He certainly had a ball and after just a few days of skiing looked almost like pro!

My time at the Games was mainly spent skiing in the daytime. I first went skiing in 1982 with my school. I am not the sportiest soul and quite possibly the clumsiest person I know. Mrs Bowen the PE teacher had a right old laugh when I declared I would be attending the school’s ski trip to Italy. She was laughing on the other side of her face a few months later when I came home from the trip as the only bearer of a silver medal, and a two star silver medal at that. Over the years I have been skiing again several times to countries such as France, Austria, Germany and New Zealand. But my last trip was probably about 12 years ago and I had lost my skiing mojo.

I look now at these fearless young kids racing away down the slopes leaving clouds of powdery white snow behind them and I am in awe. The older I get, the more of a scaredy cat I become. Who knows why? Someone said there is a lot more at stake. Maybe, but I don’t think so in my case. My 11 year old self had my whole life ahead of me with hopes of careers and families in the future. My much older self has already had a decent career and I don’t have a family of my own to leave in my wake should something terribly tragic come to bear. But perhaps stories of people falling and having devastating head injuries have had an influence. Natasha Richardson died after hitting her head skiing and Michael Schumacher was left in a (presumed) vegetative state. Not that this has ever been confirmed, but one has to think that his life must have been catastrophically altered given his complete disappearance from the public eye. Obviously these are just celebrity faces of tragedy and there will be many more whose names we will never know. On the other hand, there are hundreds of thousands of people hitting the snow-strewn slopes on a daily basis who have the most fabulously exhilarating time and come to no harm whatsoever, other than to their wallets which seem to shrink in an instant that the words “ski pass” and “equipment hire” appear on the horizon. As cautious as I may have become, my childhood memories of whizzing along (or slipping as Big Li would say) on the white stuff and the complete exhilaration that brought with it were beckoning to me and were ultimately too much to resist.

So along I went to the ski hire shop on the first day with my wads of cash, hopes and fears and took the plunge. In the good old days we wore hats. Now I had a helmet, a modern day precaution I was pleased to see almost universally embraced in the resort I was at. I felt instantly unwieldy with my bulky clothing making me almost unable to flex any joints and the ski boots making it impossible to walk any distance. One day I left my glamorous padded trousers undone so I could bend over properly to manhandle my legs into my ski boots. If only I had remembered to do them up again when I stood up. It would have saved me embarrassingly realising they were heading south as I walked awkwardly to the bus, skis over my shoulder and so in no position to be able to pull them up with my be-gloved hands. Then there is the major decision-making as to just how many layers you need to wear. Ski chalets are designed to be warm. You get lulled into a false sense of security that maybe it is not so cold after all. I returned from a day on the pistes and was so incredibly hot in my apartment, I stripped down to my thermals. Sadly I forgot this until I was striding across the road to the supermarket for milk, the sudden rush of coldness all the more tangible when one is only wearing matching snowflake-emblazoned thermal undergarments.

But the moment I stepped out of the cable car onto the snow, it was like the old days. Who can resist a scene of glittering white snow against a deep blue sky and how amazing is it to ride up the mountain in the gondola and see all the beautiful tracks of skiers and snowboarders in the almost virgin snow below? People suggested I should not be scared or nervous as the techniques would all come back to me “just like riding a bike.” How ironic given that we all know that until recently, I’d never really cycled. However, they were right. These people always are. I tentatively headed my skis down the nursery slope and it was fine. I tackled my first drag lift with unfounded trepidation and after only half an hour it was like being transported back many years. Admittedly I fell off the ski lift on the first day but some sort of disaster was inevitable. As my sister would say – this is H, so anything is possible. The next few days I had mixed luck; a day of cancelled skiing due to bad weather and the lifts being closed; two wonderful private lessons with a local guide, mainly helpful from a navigation and confidence point of view; skiing with new friends; losing my gloves in a cafe after another obligatory vin chaud stop; my first ever fondue with my mate Liz; falling while stationary; my skis falling out of the outside of the gondola car in mid air after I put them in the snowboard slot. But all the while, I was captivated by the frozen beauty of the slopes which had sucked me in all those years ago. This early in the season the pistes were quiet. Sometimes I would be skiing along and notice I was totally alone for a few moments. It was picturesque, breathtaking, serene, all at the same time. Mind you, I am more than four times older than I was the first time I ventured out skiing and copious amounts of tiger balm and generous helpings of vin chaud were needed to soothe my aching muscles. Thank goodness for my mate Jean who was able to source these brilliant giant tiger balm patches. The aforementioned thermal undergarments held them in place very securely and I even slept with my calves encased in these delights. I think you’re meant to keep them on for a maximum of an hour or so but the packets are in a language I can’t understand so therefore this information didn’t exist in my mind!

Yet the real inspiration on this trip was not the skiing but the totally incredible people I met as part of the Games. Such is the modern era of medicine that a transplant recipient can now expect to have many years, often a whole lifetime, of restored health – all at the expense of a generous deceased donor family or a selfless living friend or relative who puts their own good health at risk to transform the future of their loved one. Some people were there as sole participants, others members of large national teams. We were grouped into restaurants for our meals and so I spent most of my time with people from Canada, Australia, Ireland, Norway, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Sweden, Spain and Poland. Aside from the ridiculous table wars which saw the restaurant absolutely insist we sit with our own compatriots and not mingle, those of us from countries with only a small contingent having to buddy up to form a table of orphan nations, this was the most sociable time – one of bonding over shared tales of transplant experiences. As an observer, it was striking that one could look around the room and not know who had undergone a transplant, who was a live donor, who was a family member and who was a health professional. These people’s tales were touching, poignant, sometimes almost unbelievably so. Yet any suggestions of tragedy or bravery were universally dismissed as they had all refused to be defined by their illnesses. While there was occasional questioning as to who was “a liver” and who was “a heart”, for the most part, these were ordinary people with ordinary lives except for an extraordinary interlude from which they were now recovered. That is not to say that they had not experienced pain, hardship, loss and sadness, but they had just got on with what needed to be done to rebuild their lives after organ failure and transplantation. My own charge, who had the most wonderful time at the ski camp, was just a tiny baby when I first met him, his body ravaged by liver disease from which he would never have recovered save for a transplant. He raced down those slopes faster than me despite never having been on skis before, all the while half of his mother’s liver playing a constant reminder inside him of how differently things might have been. The boy is incredible. He has never even had a day off school. I should be led into thinking that my own silly tales pale into insignificance except that these amazing people would say that they are equally affecting as it is context and timing that makes upset and tragedy what it is to an individual.

What we must remember however is that these people survived transplantation because of positive attitude, supportive families and friends but most of all, the selflessness of their donor or donor family. Every day, thousands of people die while awaiting a transplant. Not everyone has a suitable or willing live donor. Some people live in countries with no access to transplantation. If, by reading this blog, even one of you changes your mind about being a donor when your time here is up, or takes this opportunity to discuss your wishes with your nearest and dearest, then my job will be done.

Thank you World Transplant Games Federation for the amazing work you do and for the opportunity for me to spend the last week with you all. Until next time… x

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