Many Kent County residents no doubt recently returned from a three-day Fourth of July weekend, possibly including time spent with family and friends at the beach or a backyard cook outs.
Among them is Magnolia-area resident Lloyd Saba, who says he’s still grateful for those moments, even years after receiving a life-saving liver transplant.
The 60-year-old will experience another major life moment this coming weekend when he will travel to Houston, Texas to take part in the 2014 Donate Life Transplant Games as a member of Team Philadelphia.
The games will feature more than 2,000 athletes – all transplant recipients and surviving donors – from across the country, who will compete in a variety of sporting events including basketball, swimming, and track and field.
The story of how Saba got to be a transplant athlete began in 2000, when he was first diagnosed with a non-responsive liver disease.
“I went through some treatment which was nonresponsive,” he said recently, recalling his ordeal. “I was brought back in by doctors a few weeks later and they notified me that the only thing that would help me would be a liver transplant.”
Saba knew a transplant was a long shot, and wasn’t entirely convinced it was a viable option.
“I believed only the rich and famous got (transplants),” he said. “I did what the doctors told me to do, but I was getting very sick and having my stomach drained often.”
Saba said he tried his best to continue living, which included working in the Delaware Technical Community College mailroom, a job he took after retiring from a 31-year career with the U.S. Postal Service.
But as time went on, he began to prepare for the worst. A week before his wife’s birthday, for instance, the couple began planning his funeral together.
“I’m a romantic, so I took her to plan my funeral,” he joked. “I knew I was dying and a transplant was the last thing from my mind.”
Yet on Feb. 16, 2008, he received a telephone call that would end up changing – and actually extending – his life.
“I was just on my way home from Philadelphia when I got the call,” he said. “The next morning at around 5 a.m., I was told I was actually going to receive the transplant.”
Saba said he was relieved by the news, but his feelings quickly turned bittersweet once he learned more about the donor, a 19-year-old man with a 1-year-old son.
“I was overwhelmed with grief and guilt; it’s a hard feeling to describe,” he said. “I went from that feeling of content with dying to the excitement of getting the liver to being scared going into the surgery. Then, finding out there’s a mother without a son, and a son without a father, I became very depressed. I came to realize that he was going to die anyway and there was nothing I was able to do about that, but a young man said yes to be an organ donor and now my family still has me around.”
The transplant was a success, and Saba later became one of the 73.8 percent of liver transplant recipients who survive beyond five years of the procedure.
While little information is given to transplant recipients about their donors, Saba was eventually able to learn more about his life saver.
“I received a letter in 2010 with some pictures,” he said. “I learned his name was Justin and he lived somewhere in Pennsylvania and his son’s name was Jordyn. [His family] shared with me some kind words about Justin and that he would be proud to know that [his father] helped another human being. I’m so grateful to him and his family.”
Since receiving his transplant, Saba and his wife have worked tirelessly to help spread the word about the need for organ donors. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, someone new is put on an organ transplant waiting list every ten minutes, and 18 people die each day while waiting for a life-saving transplant.
“I started working with the Delaware Coalition for Organ and Tissue Donation, handling everything south of the canal,” Saba said. “We do a variety of events to help raise awareness. we’re very active. It’s me and my wife’s way of giving back … Organ donation does work and we’re trying to show that. I believe 50 percent of Delaware drivers are organ donors, and my goal is to try and continue that trend everywhere.”
Saba has even spoken at area high schools and colleges to help spread word about the importance of being an organ donor.
“A lot of people know me from what I do, and (Del Tech) supports me very well, allowing me to talk to some of the classes that come through,” he said. “I’ve spoken at Polytech and Bridgeville and I did some things with the Department of Motor Vehicle.”
This weekend, Saba will participate in his third Transplant Games, having competed in Madison, Wis., in 2010 and Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2012.
Saba said he will honor his donor at this year’s event by carrying a photo of Justin and his son. But he hopes to do more.
“I have the desire to someday meet my donor family,” he said. “I’d like to give Justin’s son, Jordyn, my gold medal I have from the 2012 games. If not for the gift of life given to me by his dad, I would not be alive.”
For info on Saba’s progress at the Transplant Games, including live streaming coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies, go to transplantgamesofamerica.org between Friday and Tuesday.