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Last November was a bleak time for the family of Chrysantha Bradley.
Chrysantha was awaiting a heart transplant at the University of Washington Medical Center, but she was fading fast. If she didn't get a heart soon, there was a good chance Chrysantha might not see Christmas.
Then came the call. Chrysantha Bradley, who is called Santa by her family and friends, received an early Christmas present, a heart transplant on Dec. 2.
Fast forward to Wednesday afternoon, when the sounds of laughter and a bouncing volleyball echoed from one of the courts at the Juneau Racquet Club's Valley location.
There, Chrysantha Bradley was working out with her father Ray Sr., her younger brother Alika, and three friends, Kaley Hoyle, Alexis Jorgensen and Ashley Ahrens, as she prepared for the U.S. Transplant Games June 21-24 in Orlando, Fla. Chrysantha will play setter for Team Oregon and Washington during the coed volleyball competition scheduled for June 23.
``I'm looking forward to it,'' Chrysantha said, sounding almost as excited about visiting Disney World as she is about competing in the U.S. Transplant Games. ``I love watching volleyball, but not as much as playing it.''
Chrysantha's recovery isn't complete, but she's a much healthier person than she was six months ago. Following her transplant, Chrysantha was out of the Intensive Care Unit within three days and out of the hospital within 10. She returned to Juneau in March, in time for her 15th birthday March 26. This summer Chrysantha is trying to catch up on all her missed schoolwork so she can rejoin her sophomore class at Juneau-Douglas High School.
``I have a lot more energy,'' Chrysantha said. ``It's incredible what I've been doing. Now I'm jogging, and I didn't really jog before.''
Chrysantha walks on a treadmill for an hour every day, and her father said she's now starting to mix some jogging into her routine. She's not allowed to lift weights yet, he said, because it's still too soon after the transplant. Chrysantha has to take roughly 50 pills a night to keep her body from rejecting the new heart, pills that cost about $2,000 to $2,500 a month. One of those pills is a steroid, Prednazone, which helps her hold onto her weight while the body adjusts.
``She had so much energy the first day,'' Ray said. ``On the second day, she was up by 6:30 and had already taken a shower. She definitely has a lot more energy.''
As she's regained her strength, Chrysantha has been able to resume playing volleyball, her favorite sport. Chrysantha said one of the saddest times in her life was giving up volleyball when she first developed cardiomyopathy - a viral infection that enlarges the heart and can be congenital for some families - two years ago. As an eighth-grader, Chrysantha was a team captain and starting setter for her middle school team. But she had to quit the team as she lost her strength.
``I was bred into playing volleyball,'' Chrysantha said. ``My dad, my mom, my aunt, my uncle and all kinds of different people in our families here and in Hawaii play volleyball. My uncle, Dale Bontrager, is an assistant coach at Juneau High School.
``I'm getting it back, very slowly,'' she added. ``I still need to work. I was really good. I used to do 500 sets with a volleyball and 500 sets with a basketball three times a day, before I got sick. I can't set a basketball yet.''
Chrysantha has made tremendous progress. But that doesn't mean her family has forgotten how bleak things were in late November and early December when death was literally knocking on her door.
``That was a bad time,'' Ray said. ``She would not have been here if she hadn't gotten that transplant. I'm just amazed at how far she's come. To walk from here to that door (a distance of about 25 feet) to go to the restroom took a big effort. There's no doubt in my mind she would have died.''
``One day it was just really hard to sit up in bed,'' Chrysantha said. ``I didn't feel bad. I just felt tired. One thing with this disease is it slowly kills you.''
While she was in the hospital in Seattle, the Make-a-Wish Foundation brought several of Chrysantha's friends down for a shopping trip (with limousine) and overnight sleepover that filled the floor of her hospital room. Three of those friends were back helping Chrysantha prepare for the U.S. Transplant Games.
``We used to like to walk to J.J.'s Deli (during the first weeks of their freshman year at JuneauDouglas High School), but she couldn't walk that far anymore,'' Hoyle said. ``We did get to go out once (in Seattle), but she had to go in a wheelchair. She's more active now, but she's still the same person.''
``She acts the same,'' Ahrens said.
While Chrysantha is picking up the pieces of her new life with a new heart, the Bradley family is bracing for another possible wait for a heart transplant.
Chrysantha's 29-year-old brother, Ray Jr., has suffered from cardiomyopathy for six years. He had been a heart transplant waiting list the last year or so, but his father said Ray Jr.'s condition has stabilized with medication and he's been taken off the waiting list. The family expects he'll probably be back on the waiting list within three or four years.
``My dad and my brother both died of heart failure, and probably seven other relatives have died from the same symptoms,'' said Ray Sr., who thinks they all had cardiomyopathy even though their records don't list the condition that has only been recognized since 1969.
That's one reason why Chrysantha was so willing to go to the U.S. Transplant Games when she was contacted by a representative of Team Oregon and Washington. By competing in the event, which is presented by the National Kidney Foundation, Chrysantha can help promote organ donation efforts in Alaska and also say thank you to the unknown 26-yearold person whose heart now beats in her chest.
``You can never stop looking back and thinking about that,'' Chrysantha said.
Bill Thornton is the Anchoragebased coordinator of MOTTEP of Alaska, which is now officially known as the Minority Organ Tissue Transplant Education Program but is changing the `M' in its name to Multicultural. Thornton, a heart transplant recipient himself, spends his time counseling people who are waiting for transplants and potential donors. He said he had talked to the Bradley family by phone and sent e-mails, but he was surprised to hear Chrysantha was already competing in sports so soon after her transplant.
``You're kidding! She just had it,'' Thornton said. ``She's a fantastic kid.''
Thornton said it's not uncommon, though, for heart transplant recipients to return to an active life soon after their transplant. He said the heart basically just pumps blood, so if there hadn't been any major damage to the arteries it doesn't take long for the body to recover once the new heart is transplanted into the system.
``With me, I'd been deteriorating for a year, so it took me awhile,'' Thornton said. ``But hers happened real quick, so it wasn't as difficult.''
Becoming an organ donor requires more than a signature on the back of your driver's license, Thornton said. Not only do potential donors have to sign their licenses, but they also have to let their family know they plan to donate their organs. But there's another problem with organ transplants, potential donors have to take care of themselves so their organs can be used.
``I've had people come to me so they could sign their donation forms, and they had lit cigarettes in their hands,'' Thornton said. ``A lot of organs aren't able to be used, especially if they've been damaged by years of smoking and drinking. For example, there's one hospital in Washington that had more than 200 people who needed kidneys last year. Of that group, 80 kidneys were offered for donation but only 12 could be used.''
There are more than 45,000 Americans waiting for kidney transplants right now and nearly 20,000 waiting for liver transplants. There were more than 4,000 people on the heart transplant waiting list, 3,600 on the lung transplant list and about 900 waiting for a pancreas transplant, according to United Network for Organ Sharing figures. Only about a quarter to half of the people, depending on what organ is needed, received transplants last year.
That's one reason for the U.S. Transplant Games, which features competition in track and field, cycling, basketball, bowling, swimming, tennis, volleyball and other sports. The games not only promote organ donation programs, but they also show people can lead healthy lives after receiving transplants.
Among the featured athletes at the U.S. Transplant Games is San Antonio Spurs forward Sean Elliott, who last summer had a kidney transplant and returned to the NBA this spring. NBA Hall-ofFamer Oscar Robertson, who donated a kidney to his daughter, will be a guest speaker. The only other Alaskan competing is Anchorage bowler Burnett Schultz, who had a kidney transplant in 1995.
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