Monday, August 24, 2009

From transplant to triumph

Mass General employee competes in World Transplant Games

Jennifer Searl

There’s another side to Jen Searl, MLS, a health educator at the Maxwell and Eleanor Blum Patient and Family Learning Center at Mass General, that most patients and visitors probably wouldn’t guess from her slight physique and quiet manner. Searl is a gold-medal winning athlete – and as a transplant recipient, that’s no small triumph.

On August 19, Searl traveled to the other side of the globe to represent the United States as captain of the swim team in the 2009 World Transplant Games. It’s a world of difference from where she was not too long ago. Up until 2002, Searl was unable to participate in almost any type of physical activity.

Searl was diagnosed with kidney disease at age 12. Following diagnosis, she underwent a traditional kidney transplant with her father as the organ donor. The immunosuppressive drugs she needed to prevent rejection of the new organ, however, resulted in debilitating side effects – from memory loss to excruciatingly painful warts on her feet. Searl would struggle with the side effects for seven long years, trying numerous therapies and medications to alleviate her pain and discomfort.

Groundbreaking transplant procedure

Relief finally came in 2002, thanks to a groundbreaking procedure developed at Mass General. That year, Searl became the first patient in the world to receive a nonmatched, transplanted organ without needing to take immunosuppressive drugs. Through the new procedure, her immune system was temporarily suppressed and her donor’s cells were introduced simultaneously with the transplant. As doctors hypothesized, when her immune system returned, it developed a tolerance to the new organ. To Searl, the risks the procedure presented and the month of isolation and recovery afterward were a small price to pay for what would eventually be a complete return to normalcy.

Searl began exercising to keep in shape after the operation, running, lifting weights and attending fitness classes on occasion. Her first experience with athletic competition came in the form of two half-marathons.

“What began as just exercise, over time, became my passion,” she says. Having been limited by her health for so long, Searl enjoyed her newfound abilities and the challenge and rigor of training.

The heart of a competitor

In 2006, Searl participated in the U.S. Transplant Games, swimming in two backstroke, one breaststroke and one individual medley event in Louisville, KY. She won two gold and two silver medals. Winning was great – but what she really loved was meeting other transplant patients and hearing their success stories.

“I just sort of stumbled upon the games online and decided I wanted to get involved,” says Searl. “The competition celebrates the fact that transplant patients are just like everyone else, while bringing attention to the need for organ donation.”

In 2007, as if national swimming competitions weren’t enough, Searl decided to give full marathons a try, running in one in Chicago and another in Cape Cod.

She again participated in the U.S. Games in 2008, competing in both track and swim events. This time, Searl received six medals: four gold, one silver and one bronze. Her success landed her the prestigious honor of “Outstanding Female Athlete” –and a trip to the 2009 World Transplant Games. Only a week after the games, Searl also completed her first triathlon.

2009 World Transplant Games

At the 2009 World Games, held Aug. 22 through 30, Searl competes amongst more than 2,000 other transplant athletes from 50 countries in a lengthy list of events: the 100 meter backstroke; the 50 meter breaststroke; the breaststroke leg of the women’s four by 50 meter medley; 1500, 800 and 400 meter runs; and the four by 100 meter running relay.

She has been training hard for the past year. Searl swims approximately 4,000 yards three times a week with an adult team in Beverly, Mass., building up her endurance and perfecting her technique. “In swimming, every hundredth of a second counts,” says Searl. She also trains for her running events with two track workouts and one distance run a week, along with weight training nearly every day.

As part of her “Outstanding Female Athlete” award, all of her expenses, from airfare to medical insurance, have been paid for. Her mother, who was Searl’s second kidney donor, will accompany her on the trip and cheer her on along with thousands of other families whose lives have been touched by organ donation.

“The games are the chance to show the entire world how much of a difference organ donation can make in another person’s life – a life like mine.”

Read an article about the groundbreaking procedure that helped transplant recipient Jennifer Searl avoid immunosuppressive drugs

Learn more about the Transplant Center

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