Jack Atkinson was 17 years old when he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
"But when you’re young, you don’t really care,” he says. "I thought I was 10 feet tall and bulletproof.”
He may not be bulletproof, but Atkinson, now 51 years old, has proven himself through two transplants, a host of complications and, now, two U.S. Transplant Games.
He returned from the 2010 games, an Olympics-style event for transplant recipients, living donors and donor families, this August. At the six-day games held in Madison, Wis., he competed in race-walking, a 5-kilometer cycling race and the discus throw.
He also used the experience to connect with other athletes, all seeking to upset a widely held image of transplant recipients.
"People think that because you had a transplant that you have one foot in the grave, that you’re permanently sick—and you’re not,” he says.
Atkinson’s first transplant was in 1994, a dual pancreas-kidney transplant. Despite two rejection episodes and a blood virus he battled for nearly a year, he recovered and began training for the 2000 Transplant Games. There, he won a bronze medal for a 5K cycling race.
"I’ve been given a gift. I’ve been blessed with this transplant,” he says. "I wanted to prove more to myself than anybody that I could do it and I did.”
In the early part of 2001, his pancreas failed and he returned to insulin injections and occasional bouts of anemia. In April 2004, he received his second pancreas transplant.
"I went back to work in two months. Knock on wood, I’ve done almost anything I’ve wanted since that day,” says Atkinson.
That includes helping to organize the UC Health patient team going to the 2010 games and serving as a mentor to other transplant patients at UC Health University Hospital.
For those patients, he recommends the games as a way to meet others like them: "The sense of pride and community at the transplant games is just unbelievable. Everybody around you has been on the same boat you’ve been on. It’s just an incredible connection.”