August 22, 2008

Former patient shines at Transplant Games

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Former patient William Jay on the podium after winning a gold medal at the Transplant Games in Philadelphia. (photo by Austen Sanders)

Former patient shines at Transplant Games

Average isn't good enough for William Jay. He wants to be exceptional. And he proved that this summer by winning three gold medals at the U.S. Transplant Games in Philadelphia.

Jay, who had two liver transplants at Vanderbilt in 2004, finished first in the long jump and both the 100- and 200-meter dashes for men age 18-29.

“The goal is to show people that I'm not just healthy, but I can do better than people whether they've had a transplant or not. I want to prove that I can be exceptional even after something like this,” he said.

Once a competitive sprinter at the University of Tennessee, Jay said he had big dreams to go far in the sport, but he had just taken his first teaching position when he became jaundiced and weak.

A diagnosis of primary sclerosing cholangitis was delivered by David Raiford, M.D., director of the Liver Service at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Jay's first transplant seemed successful, but 10 days later, he had a massive bleed and was back for a second transplant. Then the complications began, including kidney failure, pneumonia, a staph infection, a collapsed lung and a tracheotomy.

“You don't have the best outlook when you overhear what's being said about you, but you do everything to survive, even if it's remembering to breathe every five seconds,” Jay said.

In less than a year, Jay was back on the track coaching local children. A fellow coach read about the Transplant Games on the Internet and suggested Jay get back in shape. Jay, however, wanted to take it easy and not overexert himself.

Despite the lax training, he still won gold medals in every event he entered.

To qualify for the games? “You have to have had a transplant, and that is qualification enough,” Jay said.

He said there were two sides to the transplant games, those who were celebrating their health and those serious about the competition.

“I saw amazing things, others who've had a rougher time than me and were happy to do anything remotely athletic, and then there were guys eyeing me up and down, ready to race,” Jay said.

On the winner's podium, Jay said he reflected on the difficulties that brought him to that spot.

“The podium definitely reminded me of how far I've come. I need to remember how sick I was and how thankful I should be to the donor family's gift of life,” he said.

For more information or to register online to become an organ and tissue donor, please go to

The three gold medals have only fueled Jay's desire to be exceptional.

“When you're that sick for so long, you start to write things off. I was fearful I would never get back to normal life,” Jay said. “Now I want people to see a fluid athlete. People say they don't know I've had a transplant, but that's good. That shows the incredible work of everyone who cared for me at Vanderbilt.”

He now has his sights set on the 2009 World Transplant Games in Australia. He plans to do the sprints and long jump and maybe form a relay team.

“I always intended on continuing to stay healthy even before the transplant. I see myself continuing to want to compete. I don't know if I could catch up to the runners on the world stage, but maybe when they get old and fat,” Jay said with a laugh.