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Waynesboro heart recipient to compete in her fifth Transplant Games

July 07, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

WAYNESBORO, Pa. -- It was Dec. 22, 1997, and Sara (Henke) Edelman had been waiting for a heart transplant for two years, the last seven months of which were spent confined to a hospital.

Edelman, whose last meal was on Thanksgiving, turned to her doctor and announced that she would be going home for Christmas - to die.

The doctor, though, had a secret and asked for just one more day, allowing only two hours to pass before the secret was revealed.

"She came in with a videotape and said, 'Guess what! I just saw an echocardiogram of your new heart,'" Edelman recalled.

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Edelman's journey to that point had not been easy, the journey that followed hardly any simpler. Yet, 10 years have passed and with them came college, marriage and four Transplant Games.

The Transplant Games, Edelman said, are not really about athletics, but rather the camaraderie that comes from being around 7,000 transplant recipients, their caregivers and donor families. The games, scheduled for July 11 to 16, include 12 sports for transplant recipients in an Olympic-style format.

Not an athlete

Edelman doesn't call herself an athlete and never had much opportunity to participate in sports before she got her new heart, and the lung that came with it, at age 20. Her health problems revealed themselves in infancy and deteriorated in her teenage years, leaving the bubbly girl in congestive heart failure at age 16.

She credits her younger brother, Jeremy Henke, with saving her life, an irony considering his very existence had once been a suggestion tied to her death.

Edelman had been born with half a heart and impaired lung function.

"They told my mom that she might want to think about having another child to hold when I die," Edelman said.

The boy born 18 months after Edelman refused to admit his sister was sick. In turn, she felt the need to keep up with everything he did.

"I had my first surgery about the time he was born," she said.

Shunt surgery helped for a while, but Edelman needed to have a third chamber built in her heart by age 5. Extra branches grew in her lung and restricted the flow of oxygen.

Regret flickers in Edelman's words when she talks about the embarrassment she felt when dragging around an oxygen tank in high school. She keenly remembers shyly taking the tank into the grocery store on occasion.

"In high school, you don't want to stand out," she said. "You don't want to be different."

Surgery

An organ transplant had never been an option for Edelman until she met Dr. Thomas Spray at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Edelman, whose blood type is O positive, was added to the transplant list, graduated from Waynesboro Area Senior High School in 1996, started studies at Shippensburg (Pa.) University, but got progressively weaker.

She entered the hospital full time two days after her brother's wedding.

"I never thought that I'd be waiting there seven months," Edelman said. Time passed with Halloween events and football-watching parties to distract the children from their situation, she said.

"It got to the point where they all got their transplants and went home," Edelman said, "and there I'd sit."

Edelman had lost patience - and hope - when her 1997 Christmas gift arrived from a 19-year-old who was a patient at Temple University Hospital. Her family drove quickly to Philadelphia, but arrived 30 minutes after Edelman had entered a 14-hour surgery.

Edelman remembers being surprised to learn she'd be receiving a lung in addition to the heart. She closed her eyes to sign the medical waivers and then walked down the hallway to the operating room.

"Honestly, I hate to say it, but I thought I was going to die. I was taking this thing full on by myself," she said.

The first observation made by Edelman's mother after the procedure was that her daughter's toes were pink, not blue, for the first time in years.

"Ever since then I've been pink," Edelman said with a smile.

Becoming an 'athlete'

Edelman, a Washington County agriculture preservation specialist, participated in her first Transplant Games six months after the life-changing surgery. She was determined to participate in a 20-kilometer bike ride, but was relieved when the course was cut in half due to sweltering heat.

Since then, Edelman has traveled to Orlando, Minneapolis and Louisville for the biennial U.S. Transplant Games. She leaves for Pittsburgh with her family later this week and plans to participate in a number of events including shot put, discus throw, softball throw and table tennis.

It's not about the medals for Edelman.

"My one friend said that if there was a medal for 'social butterflyism,' I'd win that one," she said.

She's looking forward to spending time with friends, many of whom she only sees at the events. Edelman flips between referring to athletes as "kidneys" and "heart and lungs" to "Team Connecticut" and "Team Philadelphia."

"In the Transplant Games, it doesn't matter what place you finish, just that you do finish," Edelman said.

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