After being diagnosed with lupus and undergoing a kidney transplant, Cathy Guy thought her days as a competitive athlete were well behind her.
Then came a phone call nearly two years ago. It was a college friend who also had undergone a kidney transplant.
“He called and said, ‘Why the heck weren’t you at the Transplant Games in 2008? I expected you to be there and you weren’t,’” recalled Cathy, 46, from her Rainier Valley home.
Although her friend was mostly teasing, the call got Cathy thinking.
“I was a competitive (track) athlete in college, but then after being diagnosed with lupus and subsequently undergoing a kidney transplant, my life took a different path,” she said. “The idea of a friendly competition was enticing and exciting to me,” she explained.
Cathy did more than just think about competing. She signed up to participate in the 2010 National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games in Madison, Wis. The Games, which will be held July 30–Aug. 4, are an Olympic–style event for athletes who have received life–saving organ transplants of every type – kidney, liver, heart, lung, pancreas and bone marrow.
Transplant athletes will compete for gold, silver and bronze medals in a dozen sports, including golf, track and field, swimming, tennis, basketball and cycling. Since 1990, the biennial U.S. Transplant Games have attracted participants from all over the country who are organized into 50 state teams.
Cathy’s sport this time is golf. She has found a partner from Alaska, John Hanrath, and the pair will make up the Northwest golf team.
Cathy’s participation in the games is a source of pride for Northwest Kidney Centers, based in Seattle. Northwest Kidney Centers, a nonprofit, is the largest dialysis organization serving King County and educates the public about kidney health. Cathy first became involved with the organization when she underwent dialysis training as a patient there in 1995.
She has since become a Northwest Kidney Centers volunteer – driving patients to dialysis appointments, training individuals on computers, helping with fundraising, and staffing the organization’s information booth at festivals and health fairs.
“It was an easy decision to volunteer once I felt healthy enough,” Cathy said. “Northwest Kidney Centers was so great to me. I wanted to give back.”
To prepare for the games, Cathy is practicing at the Maplewood Golf Course in Renton at least once a week. But she already feels like a winner. “It’s great to just feel healthy enough to golf,” she said. “I feel good and I feel strong.”
It’s been a long road toward improved health. For many years, Cathy wasn’t strong enough to even think about sports, much less consider a friendly competition.
She grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota and graduated from Eastern Montana College (now a part of Montana State University). After receiving her degree, Cathy headed overseas to student teach. When she returned to the states to begin her life as an elementary school teacher, things just weren’t quite right.
“I had returned from student teaching in Ireland and was completely exhausted. I couldn’t figure out why,” she said.
Soon the reason for her fatigue was made clear – she had lupus, a chronic, autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body.
Cathy had just started a new teaching job and was trying her best to manage the effects of the disease.
“I would teach and I would feel so nauseous and sick from failing kidneys,” she said. With deteriorating kidneys, “You can’t get all of those toxins and poisons out of your system. I’d teach and then when the kids would go to recess I’d go to the bathroom and throw up.”
Cathy did her best to cope with her illness and live her life, and in 1989, she moved to Seattle. In 1995 her kidneys stopped functioning, Cathy started dialysis and began evaluations for the kidney transplant process. Each of Cathy’s five siblings was tested and her eldest brother, Dave Guy, turned out to be a match. In June 1998, Dave donated one of his kidneys to Cathy.
“He said I could call it my kidney now,” Cathy laughed. “I had one little scare early on as far as rejection, but since then it’s been a matter of keeping my lupus under control so it doesn’t affect or attack the new kidney,” Cathy explained. “My biggest battles are staving off infection and fatigue.”
Cathy is now teaching again part-time at St. Anthony’s Elementary School in Renton. She is married to Tim Elfering, and the couple adopted son James from Korea in 2001.
The kidney transplant and her improved health “gave us the ability to now have a child,” Cathy said, adding that she does not think her brother realized the world of opportunities he was opening up at the time he offered his kidney. “I think he was just thinking about me and my health,” she explained. “It was the most wonderful gift.”
The Transplant Games also celebrate the donors, and Dave Guy is looking into the possibility of going. Meanwhile, Cathy still is a bit surprised to find herself training for the games.
“Many, many times I had just resigned myself to this less active life, and then this crazy thing comes along,” she said. “It’s a goal to work toward, and I’m excited about it.”
Golfer and Rainier Valley neighbor Cathy Guy was diagnosed with lupus in college and received a kidney transplant in 1998. Here she is at the Maplewood Golf Course in Renton, where she practices. Photo/Mike Penney