Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Lessons on life (and organ donation)

Pic: Long Jump medal winners
Pic: Aunty Unu, artist in the making

Brisbane can be intimidating. Its giant highways that snake through the topography make Auckland look like toyland. Brisbane’s wild weather swings capture the best of what it means to be a huge unpredictable country.

It was in Gold Coast – about an hour’s bus ride away from Brisbane International Airport – that we got a taste of what it is like to transplant everything you ever wanted onto a stretch of land that stretches from coast to cost, marked by the ocean that rages on, even at the best of times.

What is it about Gold Coast people? Every other girl walks around in skirts really short, and every other bloke has ugly body marks wrapped around their arms and call them tattoos. The young girls parade their arms, legs, bodies and bums. The guys with or without nice bodies show them off in surf shorts.

You can’t walk away from Gold Coast unimpressed. It is a vast piece of man-made landscape. It has tall buildings straining into the sky, trying to touch the clouds. It is about the only place in the world that has more Thai restaurants than Thailand. And here, you can eat a cup of ice cream with as much gummy bears in it as you want, or go scare yourself to death with death-defying rides in the theme parks.

I am glad I took Princess to the Gold Coast for the 17th World Transplant Games. There she learnt that money can run out pretty quickly if you just spend and spend. Or if you forget the NZ dollar sucks because you loss about 20% everytime you buy an Aussie dollar.

There she learnt that sun screen is a must, in the scorching heat, and rehydrating yourself can save you a lot of pain later.

There, she learnt, that time and tide waits for no man and to catch the bus, you actually may be competing with hundreds of others dying to get on the same bus.

There, as an 11 year old, she learnt the arduous discipline of a competitor, waking up to be at breakfast at 5.45am, and getting ready to compete at a venue by 7.30am.

There, she learnt that sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. Watching the Japanese girl burst into tears when she came last in the 50m sprint told Princess that some people deal with disappointment outwardly, others never show any sign. It is not about losing, but also about how you deal with the aftermath.

There, she learnt that to be gracious when you win is the true mark of an athlete. It is never just about the wins, but also how much compassion you show to others who struggle to do something that doesn’t come as naturally.

There she learnt about what it means to have team mates who cheer for you, and stand in the hot sun to bake, just to watch you race and cheer you across the finish line.

There, she learnt, to give as much as she receives – that to give up a seat to an older couple after a tough day at the fields/tracks can be just as rewarding as winning a medal.

No freak show
There she learnt the lives and tales of other little girls and adults just like her. That she is no freak show.

Transplant patients are a testament to how life can be normal. Sure – there were visible signs of athletes cracking under the heat of the sun, knees giving way, older participants panting and heaving. But there were also plenty of signs of healthy, golden and brown runners or swimmers who dare test their limits and come out as glorious as the sun.

There I go again, thinking about Dr Stephen Munn’s wisdom -- the whole transplant odyssey is about achieving normality. Sure, every now and then Princess comes up against bad liver enzymes showing something is not right. Every now and then, there are those unexplained aches and pains.

But at 11 years old, Princess is a normal kid looking forward to going to intermediate school next year. She greeted her 11 birthday on August 27th at the 17th World Transplant Games in the Gold Coast, with over 1,000 people singing her Happy Birthday and a cake with a computer generated photo of Jacob Black, her beloved from Twilight; and oh, a silver medal in the 25m swim on the same day. How cool is that?

She came home from her school today giggly about the puberty talk and being shown tampon soaked and expanding in water – a silly 11 year old, with a lot more zest for things a lot sillier I suspect.

Hubby came home after a 6-8 week assignment in Wanganui, working on a dairy project, and a boys-only ski weekend.

Aunty Unu, the braveheart that she was, came to the Gold Coast with us to cheer Princess on, forgetting her own troubled battle with cancer, and the 5 zaps she has just had to treat the insidiousness of malignant tumour in her spine.

Grandma took a week out to cheer Princess too and did so well being dragged around by us on so many occasions on our expeditions here and there. So did Aunty Malulu who gave up a week of precious time.

We are a normal family. Leading a somewhat normal life.

The story has to be about the priceless gift of life given to us by some unknown person with a family, just like ours -- probably with hopes and dreams, just like ours.

Spread the message of transplant and organ donation around. There is a life somewhere needing a precious organ.