When the 17th World Transplant Games kicks off on Australia's Gold Coast on Saturday, transplant patients from all over the world will have the chance to show what they can do and shine a spotlight on the dramatic change that transplant surgery has made to their lives. For 12-year-old Mohammed Sohbi, from Julfar, Ras Al Khaimah, a kidney transplant in 2005 meant the difference between life and death. "He plays just like kids his own age now and we are thankful for that," says his father, Safar Sohbi.
The World Transplant Games is the single biggest organ donation and transplantation awareness event in the world. This year, 2,000 participants from 50 countries will be competing in 14 sports over eight days, including 10-pin bowling, tennis, volleyball and a mini-marathon. Each participant has received a life-saving organ transplant (kidney, liver, heart, lung, bone marrow or pancreas) and is on a lifetime regimen of immunosuppressant medication. By taking part in the games, they are showing the world how healthy and rewarding life post-transplant can be.
Sohbi will be the first representative from the UAE to compete at the games. "Mohammed is going to be participating in various disciplines, including gymnastics and running. He wants to perform well, do his best, have fun and bring a medal home," his father says. Dr Mustafa al Mousawi, the president of the Middle East Transplant Games Federation, says Sohbi's participation is a positive step in raising awareness of the issue of organ donation in the UAE. "Many people, especially in our part of the world, are not aware of the impact of transplantation in returning patients who are very sick or dying back into an active life," says al Mousawi. "Many also don't know that the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan was an organ recipient, as is the Amir of Qatar, and many other high officials and businessmen."
The Middle East Transplant Games were last held in 2007. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain competed in events including athletics, swimming, table tennis and bowling. Al Mousawi says that while events like these are a lot of fun, there's a serious message behind them. "Organ shortage is a worldwide problem leading to deaths of hundreds of patients while waiting. Ironically, an abundance of healthy, working organs are buried every year without being used to save lives."
The Sohbi family knows only too well how difficult that waiting period can be. While Mohammed's future looks bright now, back in 2004 he was suffering severe kidney failure and undergoing a long series of treatments at Khalifa Hospital. With donor organs in scant supply, he could only wait and hope that his name would come up for a new kidney in time. In 2005 the call came through. There was a match and the possibility of a transplant in Manila, in the Philippines. He flew over for the surgery and the rest is history.
"People often think that after a transplant, the patient is still sick, because of the number of drugs they have to take to ward off organ rejection," explains al Mousawi. "The Transplant G0ames clearly proves the opposite. Hundreds of organ recipients gather to compete in various sports and many of them look healthier than the rest of the population. "In proving that patients return to an active healthy life we encourage people to donate organs during life or even better after death - more organs can be used from deceased donors, of course."
The World Transplant Games embrace all ages, from four years old right up to 85. The only stipulation is that entrants must have received a transplant at least one year before the games take place. Naturally, all participants must be certified medically fit to take part, with no significant complications from their surgery. Past successes show a 20 to 30 per cent increase in organ donations in the region where the games are held, and, as this is the second time Australia has played host, the organising committee is aiming high. "Our best hope is that these games will give everyone in Australia the chance to reflect with their families on the question of organ donation," says Olivier Coustère, President of the World Transplant Games.
"We hope for a significant increase of organ donations in Australia and obviously some memorable games." World-class athletes, such as Fin Tuija Helander also help to boost the profile of the event. In 1998 Helander was expected to compete in the 400m hurdles in the Seoul Olympics. Then her lungs collapsed. She had a full lung transplant in 2000 and now competes in the World Transplant Games and the Finnish Masters every year. Like Helander, each competitor, world-class or not, has a their own unique story of triumph over adversity to tell.
Additional reporting by Mostapha el Mouloudi and Acchraf al Bahi