Three with Vicksburg ties win medals at ’08 Transplant Games

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Three Mississippi teenagers with ties to Vicksburg found themselves drawn together through a set of unlikely circumstances, and they chose to celebrate being alive in a big way — at the 2008 Transplant Games.

The event, put on by the National Kidney Foundation, consists of four days of athletic competitions that are open to anyone who has received an organ transplant. This year’s games, which took place this summer in Pittsburgh, drew more than 1,000 athletes, 17 of them from Mississippi.

The participants with Vicksburg ties are Delta State University graduate Kurt Wiltcher, the 22-year-old grandson of Joyce Hall and Norman Powell; Mary Kathryn Lawrence of Pascagoula, the 13-year-old granddaughter of Bernard and Kathryn Duggins; and Sarah Bullard of Corinth, the 15-year-old granddaughter of Betty Bullard.

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“This is the biggest team Mississippi has ever had,” said Kurt’s mother, Cindy Wiltcher of Moselle. Kurt won three medals this year and is a graduate of Delta State University. “We’re unified and steady now, and we have a group that wants to keep playing. A lot of these kids have never met anybody who’s had a transplant who wasn’t in the hospital, so it’s neat to see them interact. They will be friends forever.”

In the past, Mississippi has not had a strong showing at the games mostly because, though the competition is open to all ages, young people are the ones who mostly want to attend but no hospital in the state performs pediatric transplants.

Then Kurt stepped in.

“He was in the hospital at UAB in Alabama, and the doctors knew Kurt was an athlete. So they sent somebody from Alabama’s team to come talk to him,” said Cindy Wiltcher. “He participated that first year with Alabama and had a blast, but he told me he wanted to go with Mississippi the next time around if we could make a team, so we started calling everyone we knew.”

Kurt was 16 when he noticed his eyes were turning yellow. A trip to the doctor confirmed he had autoimmune hepatitis, a disease in which the body’s immune system attacks liver cells. About two months later, he had a liver transplant.

‘We just had a blast this year. It’s just awesome to go back every year and see these amazing people — you get to meet this great people who’ve had transplants who are like you.’



“The doctor said he’d been sick for a while, but it was undetectable because he was so active,” said his mother. “There was almost no time to get used to the idea before it happened.”

Kurt says the Transplant Games has become a big part of his life.

“I love it,” he said. “We just had a blast this year. It’s just awesome to go back every year and see these amazing people — you get to meet this great people who’ve had transplants who are like you.”

And Kurt’s planning on taking it to the next step.

“The World Games are in Australia in 2009, and I am really hoping to go,” he said. “The guy who won the gold in bowling asked me to be his teammate, so I am really excited.”

“The games are just an experience like no other,” said Cindy Wiltcher. “And our team is actually good. We took 17 athletes and brought back 30 medals. Just so you know how good that is — Alabama took 40 athletes and only brought back 39.”

Three of Mississippi’s medals went to Mary Kathryn, who was 2 when she had a liver transplant.

“I like competing and meeting everyone,” said the second-year Transplant Games participant. “I had a friend in it, and he told us about it and I knew it was something I wanted to do.”

She’s already looking forward to 2009. “I am already planning it,” she said. “It’s just really exciting.”

Five more of the medals went to Sarah, a first-year games participant who had a liver transplant in 1994.

“It was really fun,” she said. “It was cool. There were people like me who took medicine and had scars. I know I’ll be back, and I am trying to figure out how to go to the World Games, too.

“I am also going to Camp Bridges this year, a camp for people who’ve had liver transplants,” said Sarah, whose father, Arch Bullard, grew up in Vicksburg.

Mississippi took 77 people to the national games, including athletes, donor families and participants’ family members.

“Donor families come with us each year. Most had teenagers or young adults who died, and they go to support the team as well as to a ceremony that is given in their honor,” said Cindy Wiltcher. “It’s a way for them to see the life that people are given because of their loss. It shows them how special it is to be a part of it all and that they did the right thing. It’s one big circle, and we’re a close knit family.”

The 2010 Transplant Games will be in Madison, Wis., and the Mississippi team is already preparing.

“We want to take 25 athletes this year so we can compete for the big, overall medal,” said Cindy Wiltcher. “I know we can win it.”

For more information on Mississippi’s Transplant Games team, call Cindy Wiltcher at 601-582-3443.