Jill Nolen, 23, of North Fork leaves tomorrow for her second appearance at the Transplant Games of America in Grand Rapids, Mich. where 1,500 transplant recipients from around the country will compete in 13 sports in four days starting Saturday.
Nolen is a member of Team NorCal, a 40-member group of transplant recipients or donors who will compete to raise funds and awareness for organ transplants.
"We are a team full of life and some of us, like myself, have been given the gift of life from a transplant donor," Nolen said. "The Games are held every two years and this will be my second time going. These Games are a life changing experience as we honor our donor families and celebrate the gift of life and renewed health. "
The Games are set up fairly similar to the actual Olympics with an opening ceremony and different athletic venues along with various workshops.
"I am so excited to be given the privilege, once more, to be a part of Team NorCal," the 2007 Yosemite High School graduate said. "I am planning to represent my donor, as well as the rest of the team, while trying my best in track and field and swimming relay teams, participating in the softball throw and on the NorCal basketball and volleyball teams."
Nolen became aware of the games from Cathy Olmo, who's daughter Kelly was in the hospital going through a transplant operation at the same time Nolen was. Olmo is currently the community development supervisor for the California Transplant Donor Network.
"Our families have stayed in touch all these years and Cathy told us about Kelly participating in three sports at the games." Nolen said.
"All I heard was sports and I was instantly interested," Nolen said. She played four years of softball and two years of volleyball at YHS. Her junior year she served as JV assistant volleyball coach.
Nolen family knows plenty about the gift of organ transplants.
Nolen had two liver transplants, both before she was one-year old. And when the first transplanted liver failed, her parents, Mike and Judy Nolen, could only hope that someone would be willing to step up with the gift of life for a second time.
Nolen was born with jaundice which is not usual for newborns. But this persisted and two months after her birth, her grandmother, who trained as a nurse, told Jill's parents they should have her checked.
"We did and the doctor told us we should see a specialist," said her dad. "We packed up that night -- it was every parents' nightmare. Transplanting livers, especially in children, was real new. Yet at six months, she received the first transplant. We did not want to give her to the nurse for the operation, she was so tiny. Then the waiting game began ... twelve hours of surgery. We were wrung out. Jill opened her eyes and they were white. They had always been jaundiced and yellow."
Mike said after the surgery at Pacific Presbyterian Medical Center in San Francisco, now called California Pacific Medical Center, he and Judy remained close by the hospital and every day Jill had blood drawn to check liver function.
"On Mother's Day, we were preparing to leave to go home when the doctor told us the liver was not going to work."
That summer was a waiting game. Jill's health was deteriorating slowly and unlike infants her age, she could not crawl and could hardly sit up.
"A seven-year old boy in Utah was riding his bike and was killed in an accident and his liver became available," Mike said. "Within a month after her second surgery, everything was looking good. Instead of the up and downs and trials and tribulations like the first time when she was struggling to accept the liver, the second was just magic. After a month, when they told us when they told us we could go home. We couldn't get out of the Bay Area fast enough, away from hospitals, blood test sticks and constant reminders of the year we had all endured."
For most of that year, Mike and Judy lived at the Ronald McDonald House in San Francisco.
The family reconnected with Jill's pediatrician in Bend, Oregon and the ensuing months were rocky with fevers and bouts of rejection.
"We felt we needed to be closer to the doctors and support team in San Francisco, so I applied for a medical hardship transfer with the Forest Service and accepted a job offer in North Fork," Mike remembers.
"The transplant never really left our minds, but the longer Jill was healthy, the less it was in the forefront," Mike said.
"My transplant was so long ago I don't remember a single thing, so I grew up living a fairly normal life," Jill said.
Her mother said she is in awe of the fact that her daughter is alive today solely because of the courageous decisions made by complete strangers.
"Their grief transformed into joy for our family," Judy said. "Two mothers made this decision at an extremely difficult time and for that my heart is forever grateful."
Judy feels Jill is a perfect example for the promotion of organ donations.
"She is strong, athletic, vivacious, confident and one who really lives life to the fullest," Judy said. "If she could, she would never sleep. Too many friends, too many people to help, too many events to enjoy including half marathons, softball, gymnastics, volleyball and creating set designs for various family and children plays. She once said 'be prepared to be amazed' and we are never quite prepared for the things she accomplishes."
She has also taught gymnastics for 11 years, 10 in Oakhurst and one in Fresno.
Mike and Judy will join Jill at the games.
Much work to be done to raise awareness
It was Jill's participation in The Transplant Games two years ago that brought what is meant to have a transplant to the forefront.
"It's amazing how the athletes were able to overcome various degrees of obstacles to allow them to compete," Jill said. "I realized I am part of a larger family that embraces life to the fullest, taking nothing for granted. There is so much work to be done to raise awareness in the general population about transplantation and organ donation."
Jill said she is alive today due to her gift by her donor families who chose to have their son or daughter become a donor. She values every aspect of life, big or small and at the end of the day she always remembers two things.
"Every night before closing my eyes I think back on the day and thank my donor and God for the life I am living."
A senior at Fresno State studying Deaf Education, Jill said her life changed after registering for a deaf culture class.
"It took less than a week for me to fall in love with it all," Jill said. "After a day, an hour or even a minute of working with the deaf, I am filled with nothing but excitement. And I find myself smiling nonstop till the day comes to an end."
In June, she spent two weeks at Gallaudet University in DC, the first deaf university in America.
"I want to be an advocate for captions being universal for all types of broadcasting media," she said.
Seeking donations for an incredible cause
"I encourage Mountain Area residents to donate to this incredible cause," Nolen said. "Not only do the contributions help our team get to Michigan, the contributions mean so much more," Nolen said. "Your donation goes towards helping all of us spread awareness of the need for people to become donors."
Nolen, who recently joined the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Service Center board of directors, said any size donation, including the minium $12, goes a long way.
For those able to help, donations can be sent to Jill Nolen, 33587 Woodland Pond Trail, North Fork, CA 93643.
Jill reminds everyone that California residents can check "Yes, I want to be an organ and tissue donor" when they apply for or renew their driver's license or ID card through the California DMV. People can also sign up online to be an organ and tissue donor with the Donate Life California Registry at donatelifecalifornia.org. Information about the impact of providing the "gift of life" to others through donor or tissue donation is at ctdn.org.
Transplant Games of America opening ceremonies can be seen at 4:15 p.m. (Pacific Time) Saturday at viewer.dacast.com/broadcaster/12473/c/12035.
Organ transplant facts
There are currently more than 110,000 people on the National Organ Transplant Waiting List. More than 21,000, or 20% of the national total, are listed at California transplant centers.
Of those waiting, one in three will die due to a shortage of organs.
Nationwide, approximately 18 people die each day awaiting life-saving organ transplants, and a new name is added to the national waiting list every 13 minutes.
One organ donor can save up to eight lives and one tissue donor can improve the lives of up to 50 others.
Nationwide, approximately 70% of the 13,500 cases each year where patients are pronounced brain dead are medically suitable to be organ donors.
Nationwide, minorities represent 54% of organ transplant candidates and more than 60% of those awaiting kidney transplants.
In California, Latinos make up 35% of those waiting for life-saving transplants, Asians/Pacific Islanders comprise 16%, and African Americans another 14%.
Organs that may be donated, in order of frequency transplanted, include the kidneys, liver, heart, lungs, pancreas and small intestine.
Tissues that may be donated include corneas/eyes, heart valves, skin, bone, tendons, cartilage and veins.
In about 90% of instances, only patients who experience brain death -- a medically, legally and morally accepted determination of death resulting from the complete lack of blood flow to the brain -- may donate vital organs. This represents about 1% of all deaths in hospitals annually. Under rare and controlled circumstances involving major neurological trauma, organs may be donated after cardiac death.
-- California Transplant Donor Network