World Transplant Games | Living North

World Transplant Games


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After successfully staging the Heineken Champions Cup Rugby Finals in May, our region welcomes another major sporting event this summer. The World Transplant Games head to Newcastle-Gateshead this August
‘We wanted to be able to celebrate the success of transplantation in the UK, specifically northern England because of the wonderful work of their hospitals and the generosity of the people’
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As we enter the heat of summer, athletes from across the globe are heading to the North East for some heats of their own. This August, Newcastle-Gateshead is hosting the World Transplant Games, where more than 1,500 athletes from 70 countries will compete in a celebration of the human spirit.

The Games, which will take place in August, are a biennial international sporting event organised by The World Transplant Games Federation (WTGF). The event seeks to encourage transplant recipients to stay as healthy as possible whilst promoting the unparalleled rewards of organ donation, marking each stage of the life-changing procedure. 

This is a process all too familiar for Sunderland-born Kaylee-Ann Davidson Olley, who is the UK’s longest surviving transplant recipient and a previous World Champion at the Games. At just five months old, Kaylee was diagnosed with a rare form of cardiomyopathy, meaning her heart was struggling to pump blood around her body.

At a time when transplants were a rarity, Kaylee’s mother Carol was informed by surgeons at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital that the procedure was fraught with danger. But, the decision between letting her little girl die or giving her a second chance was, as she says the ‘easiest of her life’ – and the rest is history. 

The operation, carried out by Professor Christopher McGegor in 1987, is now celebrated as the first successful heart transplant on a baby in the UK, and Kaylee is the longest surviving transplant woman in the country – a title she says she’s ‘incredibly proud of.’

Kaylee has been competing in the Transplant Games since she was just two, getting involved with the British Games before competing in the global event at the age of 15. 

Whilst she isn’t competing in this year’s competition, Kaylee will be volunteering, and she and her mum Carol can’t wait to welcome the worldwide transplant family to their home region. 

‘Kaylee was on the very first team GB junior team and I was the coach for 10 years, so we’ve developed quite a bond with the other athletes and families,’ explains Carol. ‘We know the excitement those athletes will be feeling, and it means so much to us that it will be in our home city.’ 

The first World Transplant Games were held in Portsmouth in 1978, before progressing further afield to destinations including New York in 1980, Bangkok in 2007 and the Australian Gold Coast in 2009. Newcastle-Gateshead will be the first UK city to host the Games since Manchester in 1995, putting the region firmly on the global transplant sporting map.

As well as Gateshead Stadium, athletes will also be competing at a variety of venues across the North East, including Northumbria University’s Sport Central, Newcastle Eagles Community Arena and Exhibition Park. The opening parade takes place on Saturday 17th August, where athletes will walk from Old Eldon Square to Northumberland Street before heading for Sport Central. 

The Games themselves promise to entertain, with sports ranging from swimming, cycling and athletics to table tennis and 10-pin bowling. Track and field events including high jump, 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay will also take place, the latter of which Kaylee became World Champion in at the 2013 Games in South Africa. 

President of the WTGF since 2015 and CEO of Transplant Australia Chris Thomas praises the North East’s role in the world of transplantation, where advances in treatment at the Freeman Hospital have been met with an increasing rate of organ donation.

‘The Freeman Hospital has led the way in adult and paediatric transplantation. Without the wonderful work of the doctors and nurses there, many people wouldn’t get that all important second chance at life.’

This is a sentiment echoed by Kaylee’s mum Carol, who will always be eternally grateful for those who fought to save her daughter. ’The staff at the Freeman Hospital are second to none. They all took her into their hearts and supported us immensely. Kaylee has about 100 parents at the Freeman!’ 

The Freeman is internationally renowned for its long and successful history of caring for patients with end-stage organ failure, mostly down to Kaylee’s transplant in 1987 which was followed by the first successful double lung transplant in Europe in 1990. Since then, the hospital has built on its long-standing reputation, and in 2011 it opened the UK’s first ever Institute of Transplantation. The state-of-the-art centre treats patients from all over the country, bringing together both physical and professional services to perform up to 70 transplants a year. 

You don’t have to look far to find people who have been affected by organ failure in the North. Gill Childs from Ponteland donated a kidney to her son Ryan after he was diagnosed with kidney failure at birth. Ryan will compete in the Games this August, something his mum feels incredibly proud of. ‘We both can’t wait wait to showcase the beautiful city we live in and the medical provision we have here. To compete on home ground will give him a huge sense of pride,’ she says. 

Gill also explains why the Games’ underlying message of organ donation is so important. ’Ryan has a rare tissue match of 1:20,000 so the chances of him getting a transplant from the organ donation register were very slim,’ she says. ‘Unless more people sign up, many more people like Ryan would have a considerable wait for a suitable organ.’ 

Research in 2017 showed that there were more than 200 people waiting for an organ transplant in our region, and just 37 percent of adults were on the donor register. Those figures have improved considerably in the past two years, with more than half of adults in northern England now registered to be a donor – accounting for 25 percent of the UK donors register. Despite this regional increase, more than 6,000 people are still waiting for a transplant in the UK – underlining the need to boost organ donation not only in the North East but across Britain as a whole. 

The past five Games have produced an average 30 percent increase in donations in each of the hosting countries. For Chris, this is an essential part of the Games and is something he believes the ‘Geordie charm’ of the North East will encourage. 

‘We wanted to be able to celebrate the success of transplantation in the UK, specifically northern England because of the wonderful work of their hospitals and the generosity of the people,’ he says. ‘It was great to host the Games in huge cities like Bangkok and Sydney, but the sheer size and eclecticism of those places made it difficult to leave a footprint.’ 

Chris says that Newcastle-Gateshead is the perfect place to host the Games, as it’s small enough not to lose the message, yet big enough to make a lasting impression. When asked what he was looking forward to most about visiting our region, there’s a hint of sarcasm in his answer: ‘The weather. I’m told it’s almost tropical up there.’

Text WTG2019 to 70300 to give £3 to the World Transplant Games Federation 

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Published in: July 2019

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