With a new heart, Clayton man leads NC team to transplant games

ndunn@newsobserver.comJune 16, 2014 

Clayton resident Jerry Smigelski will lead Team Carolinas to the Transplant Games of America, which will be in July in Houston. Smigelski had a heart transplant in 2010.

NASH DUNN — ndunn@newsobserver.com

It’s like getting hit in the chest with a baseball bat. That’s how Clayton resident Jerry Smigelski describes being shocked by an internal heart defibrillator.

He had such a device before having a heart transplant in 2010 and remembers well the one- to two-second jolts that would stabilize his heartbeat.

“I remember I was getting ready to see a chiropractor once and laid down on the floor because I knew I was going to get shocked,” Smigelski said.

He doesn’t have to worry about such things anymore, thanks to an organ donor and a successful surgery. He’s doing just fine, so good in fact that he plans to lead a team of transplant recipients, donors and donor families to the Transplant Games of America in July.

Smigelski will compete in table tennis and golf at the games, a multi-sport competition held in Houston. Other events include cycling, ballroom dancing, volleyball and cornhole, among others. While the event is designed to celebrate the people who receive often life-saving surgeries, organizers and doctors say the games also highlight the ongoing need for donors.

“There are a lot of people walking around, living ordinary lives, thanks to the gift of a donor,” said Sharon Hirsch, executive director of Donate Life N.C., a nonprofit that seeks to register organ, eye and tissue donors. The agency is the state affiliate of Donate Life America, which partnered with the Transplant Games last year.

Hirsch said despite a growing number of registered donors, more than 3,300 people are waiting for transplants in North Carolina. Across the nation, more than 123,000 men, women and children are waiting for transplants, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

‘Traumatic experience’

Smigelski remembers being on the list of transplant candidates in October 2010 at Duke University Medical Center. Because his condition had deteriorated so much, he ranked fairly high in priority. Doctors found a heart for Smigelski just two days after placing him on the transplant list.

“I was surprised it was that quick,” Smigelski said. “I thought it was going to be down the road.”

Dr. Joseph Rogers, one of Smigelski’s physicians and medical director of Duke’s heart-transplant program, said donor hearts are allocated based on a patient’s illness severity, blood type and waiting time. Rogers said it’s rare for patients to get a transplant quickly.

“The fact that he had a heart transplanted quickly was a function of him being quite ill when we put him on the list and frankly some luck that a suitable donor became available,” Rogers said.

But after Smigelski’s surgery, his new heart did not start properly, said his wife, Linda. In addition, he developed an aortic block in his lower body.

Doctors inserted a device that helps generate blood flow in his body, and eventually his heart started to function on its own, Linda said.

“It was a very traumatic experience, but it all worked out,” she said.

Donor need

Smigelski’s family has a history of heart illness. His 72-year-old father, Jerome, had a heart transplant 17 years ago. His father’s brother, Frank, had heart-transplant surgery about seven years ago.

Jerome will compete in the Transplant Games for Team Michigan. Smigelski said that for him and his father, the games are about remembering the donors who helped save their lives.

“It’s all about awareness and honoring those people,” he said.

Because of advances in cardiovascular medicine, doctors are saving more patients who used to die from significant cardiac injuries. That, coupled with more diagnoses, has led to an increased number of candidates who can benefit from transplants.

“There is a growing demand-supply mismatch that is very concerning to the medical community,” Rogers said.

Hirsch, of Donate Life N.C., said North Carolina has about 4.5 million registered donors, about 1 million more than in 2007, when state lawmakers made the heart icon on driver’s licenses legally binding.

Despite the increase, only a certain percentage of would-be donors can give at the time of their death. Some types of donation, specifically organ donation, require a specific type of death, such as a head injury or stroke, Hirsch said.

People can sign up to be a donor at www.donatelifenc.org/register. For more information on the Transplant Games of America, go to www.transplantgamesofamerica.org.

Dunn: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104

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