The Transplant Games of America may not have the prestige of the Olympics, the rigor of the New York Marathon, or the global viewership of the World Cup.
But these biennial gatherings are second to none in their inspirational moments – with more stories of triumph over adversity than other athletic competitions can squeeze into their telecasts.
For the better part of a decade, one of these life-affirming back stories has been that of Burlington’s own Mark Slade.
A 60-year-old father of four and grandfather of three, Slade has been living with a donated heart since the fall of 2010. He has also been a devoted follower of the Transplant Games for nearly as long as he’s boasted this healthy new ticker.
“It’s [Transplant Games] not about winning, and you don’t have to be an elite athlete to be in the games. Just trying is a win all in itself.” – Mark Slade, Burlington resident and heart transplant recipient
After attending his first competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2012, Slade has gone on to compete in every subsequent iteration of the games, which occur in a different U.S. city in the summer of each even-numbered year. He has even managed to come away with a few medals, including a bronze in the shotput and a silver in three-on-three basketball – which Slade is emphatic were never the point of his participation in these events.
“It’s not about winning, and you don’t have to be an elite athlete to be in the games,” he insists. “Just trying is a win all in itself.”
Yet, for all of the energy that Slade currently brings to the playing field, there was a time when even the walk from the locker room would’ve been more than he could endure.
Prior to his transplant, Slade had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure – a side effect of an aggressive cancer treatment that he had previously received for Hodgkins lymphoma.
Although this therapy was able to put the cancer to flight, it carried the risk of severe cardiovascular complications that, for Slade, would prove dire, indeed.
An active, engaged individual who had worked in watershed enforcement for the city of Greensboro, Slade suddenly found himself struggling just to get through the day.
“When they put me on the transplant list, I was pretty much down and out. Just going to the other side of this room would’ve been exhausting…I had to leave my job with the city of Greensboro and go into retirement.” – Mark Slade, Burlington resident and heart transplant recipient
“When they put me on the transplant list, I was pretty much down and out,” he recalled in an interview earlier this week. “Just going to the other side of this room would’ve been exhausting…I had to leave my job with the city of Greensboro and go into retirement.”
Thanks to his AB blood type, which is known for its universal compatibility, Slade managed to get a heart from suitable donor after a mere three months on the donor list. Slade still recalls the dreary, overcast day when he got the call about the new heart – a moment that was doubly memorable because it happened to coincide with his 20th wedding anniversary. Now, he and his wife Katherine would also be able to look back on this date as the beginning of his return to the world of the living.
Slade’s transplant was ultimately a resounding success, although it did take the judicious application of shock pads to get his new heart pumping again. It wasn’t long before Slade was back in the recovery room and able to imagine what life could be like without the mortal specter of heart failure darkening his door.
It was during this period of convalescence that Slade first heard about the Transplant Games of America.
“My daughter actually told me about it while I was laying in bed,” he recalled. “She said ‘hey, here’s something called the Transplant Games.”
Slade, who had played basketball as a student at Williams High School, was eager to get his blood moving again. So, he booked a seat in the stands when the Transplant Games were held in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the summer of 2012. During this five-day extravaganza, Slade witnessed many a nod to the Olympics, such as a torch lightening ceremony and a “parade of states.” He also saw a number of traditional Olympic sports, such as the shotput and discus, staged alongside other, less strenuous activities, ranging from bowling and darts to singing competitions. But in all of these activities, it was transplant recipients just like himself who were taking their proverbial marks.
Slade would ultimately be among competitors when the Transplant Games were held in Houston two years later, and he has continued to take the field with Team North Carolina ever since. Slade even received a gold medal for participation during the 2020 games, which were held virtually in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
During each round of games, Slade has forged lasting friendships with other transplant recipients – with whom he has exchanged lapel pins in another, lesser known tradition borrowed from the Olympics. Slade has also met the families of organ donors as well as some living donors, who’ve sacrificed kidneys and other expendable organs to provide others with a new lease on life.
“My purpose is to get people to be donors. I’ve gotten to see my kids grow up and gotten to know my grandkids because of this gift…The gift of life is the greatest gift you can give somebody before going out of this world.” – Mark Slade, Burlington resident and heart transplant recipient
Slade stresses that it’s the contributions of these donors, whether living or not, that are the be-all-and-end-all of the Transplant Games. Even as he prepares for the next set of games, which will begin in San Diego later this month, Slade continues to think of the donors who’ve made everything possible for him and his fellow recipients.
“My purpose is to get people to be donors,” he added. “I’ve gotten to see my kids grow up and gotten to know my grandkids because of this gift…The gift of life is the greatest gift you can give somebody before going out of this world.”
In order to further promote the gift of organ donation, Slade and his wife will hold a sendoff celebration at Burlington’s City Park this Sunday ahead of the upcoming games in San Diego. This catered event is slated to run from 3:00 to 7:00 p.m. at the homebuilders’ shelter, whose location at 1435 is not far from the city’s softball hall of fame.