MGH Hotline 09.11.09 There's another side to Jen Searl, MLS, health educator at the Maxwell and Eleanor Blum Patient and Family Learning Center at the MGH. From her slight physique and quiet manner, most patients and visitors probably wouldn’t guess that 29-year-old Searl is a medal-winning athlete who competes at the international level -- and as a transplant recipient, that's no small triumph.

From transplant to triumph

11/Sep/2009

TEEMING WITH PRIDE: Searl, far right, with teammates, from left, Jen Klouse and Ann Kirchmier

There's another side to Jen Searl, MLS, health educator at the Maxwell and Eleanor Blum Patient and Family Learning Center at the MGH. From her slight physique and quiet manner, most patients and visitors probably wouldn’t guess that 29-year-old Searl is a medal-winning athlete who competes at the international level -- and as a transplant recipient, that's no small triumph.

Searl traveled to the other side of the globe Aug. 19 to represent the United States as captain of the swim team in the 2009 World Transplant Games. The event brings together more than 2,000 transplant athletes from 50 countries to compete in a range of sporting events. Held biannually, the games celebrate the magnificent impact organ donation can have on another's life.

Searl competed in numerous swimming and track events and won seven medals overall. She earned silver medals in three events:
the 1500- and 400-meter runs and the 4-by-50 medley swim relay, and she won bronze medals in four events: the 800-meter run, the 4-by-400-meter running relay, the 100-meter backstroke and the 50-meter breaststroke.

It's quite a change of pace from where she was not long ago. For seven years, Searl was unable to participate in most physical activities. Diagnosed with kidney disease at 12, she underwent a kidney transplant with her father as the organ donor. The immunosuppressive drugs she took to prevent rejection of the new organ, however, resulted in debilitating side effects -- from memory loss to excruciatingly painful warts on her feet.

Relief finally came in 2002, thanks to a procedure developed at the MGH in which the patient's immune system is temporarily suppressed in order to allow it to develop a tolerance to the new organ. That year, Searl became the first patient in the world to successfully receive a nonmatched, transplanted organ without needing to take immunosuppressive drugs.

"I began working out to keep in shape after the operation, running, lifting weights and attending fitness classes," she says. "What began as just exercise, over time, became my passion."

Searl first participated in the U.S. Transplant Games in 2006, winning four medals, including two gold, in various swimming events. The following year, she gave marathons a try, running one in Chicago and another in Cape Cod.

Searl again participated in the U.S. Transplant Games in 2008, competing in both swimming and track events. She earned six medals that year. Her success landed her the prestigious honor of "Outstanding Female Athlete" and a trip to the 2009 World Transplant Games.

"I expected the games to be an experience I would never forget, and it was honestly the time of my life," says Searl. "It was just such a celebration of life, achievement and friendship -- winning was icing on the cake."