Joy in the Journey Part 4: The Joys of My Journey
By: Wills Porter
In Part 3 of this blog series, I wrote about a few of the challenges I have faced throughout my transplant journey. These challenges included school, navigating insurance and overcoming the bigotry of low expectations. While I believe it is important to reflect on the challenges one faces, I think it is equally important to recognize the joys of the journey. Only then can you truly appreciate life. Focusing on the joys of the journey is exactly what I want to focus on in this blog post.
Joy #1 Camp Independence
Anyone who knows me knows that Camp Independence has a special place in my heart. In many ways, this camp molded me into the person I am today. You see, before I went to this camp, I thought I was the only one who had received a transplant. In school, I felt out of place. Only a small number of my peers actually knew the challenges I had overcome. In my view, I was different and that was not a good thing. In fact, I was ashamed of my transplant story. Then one day, my parents told me I was going to Camp Independence. They said it was a camp for other kids like me who had transplants. I was a bit nervous to go to camp for the first time, but I figured I would give it a try.
When I arrived at Camp Independence, I met the camp director and my cabin group. Everyone was so welcoming, and, in some ways, this new environment felt like home. Everywhere I looked, there were people who had transplants or were waiting for transplants. Even some of the counselors had received transplants. As a camper, I took advantage of every opportunity I had. I became the classic camp kid. I did every activity, I was loud at spirit time (durring lunch), and I stayed up till midnight. I know... I was a renegade. While I enjoyed all the camp activities, it was not these activities that impacted me the most. Rather, it was who I met. For the first time ever, I got to talk with people my age who had similar life experiences. Needless to say, I had a great time. I had so much fun that my camp shirt from that year has a massive dirt stain that never washed out. To this day, I return to Camp Independence and I still stay in contact with some of the people I met that first summer.
I was once asked what keeps me going back to camp. After all, I have been attending this camp for 15years. What I find so fascinating and joyful about this camp is that I have seen the camp from the perspective of the camper and as the counselor. I have been the camper who stayed up until midnight. I have also been the counselor who has been able to mentor and speak life into campers. To me this is the greatest joy of all. As a counselor, I do my best to help each camper know that they are cared about and included. My campers know that I value them and that their future potential is not defined by their medical challenges. As a counselor, I have had many conversations with my campers about listening to people who speak life and drowning out the noise of everything else. Above all else, I want each of my campers to take joy in their own transplant journey, just as I seek to do every day.
Joy #2 Transplant Games
Imagine you are taking a trip with a bunch of friends for a week. On this trip you are going to compete in various events and meet people from across the country who all have a personal connection to donation/transplant. This is the transplant games. My first games were in 2008. This particular year, Team Georgia (and all the other teams) were meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wanting to make the mot of the games, I immersed myself in everything that the games had to offer. I went to the opening ceremony, I met with other teams from across the country and I made sure to collect al the team pins. Beyond all the festivities of the games there was one event that stuck with me the most. That was meeting the donor families.
Growing up, I knew the importance of donor families and the admirable decision they made to donate life. What I didn’t realize was that there is a difference between hearing about it and personally meeting donors. That is something I will never forget. I heard so many stories of how families found hope in tragedy. I learned about people I had never met. Yet, it was in these interactions that I felt like we were really all one big family. Sure, we may have different tastes in food, music and come from different backgrounds. However, there is something about the donor/transplant experiences that unites. I believe it is this unity that makes the donor/transplant community so unique and special. Sometimes you jut have to see it and experience it to understand. By the time the games were over, I had medaled in a few of the track and field events, and I knew that I wanted to go back to the games. I just did not know how long it would be until I returned.
My chance to return to the Transplant Games came in 2014. This specific year the games were held in Houston, Texas. Yes, Texas in the summer. This time, I had trained a lot more and prepared myself to compete in the 5K race, the 800 meter and other track events. The opening ceremonies were pretty hot, but our team did not let the heat get the best of us. After opening ceremonies, a few members of our team went to get some Texas BBQ. Others went to the Quarter Century Club Events (a club for those who had their transplants for 25 years or more). After the first day the real games began. The first event was the inaugural 5K race. My dad and I ended up both running in the race and I turned in a fairly good time. I didn’t want to go all out in the race because I knew I had a few more days of running competitions ahead of me. The next day was training day at Rice University’s track. When I arrived for practice, I met a few people from other teams and got straight to practice. While a lot of that day was spent training and acclimating to the heat of Houston, I also took in the experience. From the track you could see a few buildings in downtown Houston. While admiring the large buildings in the distance, I also thought about a few of my transplant friends that were not with our team. Unfortunately, since competing in the 2008 games, I had lost a close teammate and friend from Camp Independence, Victor. Victor was one of those guys who commanded your attention because he had such a fun personality. In that moment of taking in the experience, I decided to dedicate my time at the games to Victor. That next day I medaled in a good bit of events and even got to see my transplant mentor, Edward Drake II. After the longer than expected awards ceremony, my family and I went to the convention center to get ready for the basketball events. I literally went from the track at Rice to warming up for basketball. I ate dinner in one of the courtside chairs before meeting the team. We ended up winning one of our games, but we lost the second and were eliminated. The rest of the week, I enjoyed the game festivities and saw a few of my friends compete in other events. Presently, I have not been back to the games since then, but I hope to again return to the games.
The above are just a few examples of the joys I have experienced along my transplant journey. In each of these experiences I have made lifelong friends and have a few really funny stories about camp and traveling across the country. Most importantly, these experiences helped me become who I am today and also helped me gain a deeper appreciation for my second chance at life. In these experiences, I have learned a valuable lesson. That is that my life was gained because another was lost. To some this is a heavy concept to reconcile. I know it took me quite some time to fully understand and get past this fact. What helped me the most was being around people who themselves were impacted by organ donation and transplant. Between the many summers at Camp Independence and meeting donor families at the Transplant Games, I was abler to learn how to take pride in my transplant story and also carry on the legacy of my donor.
Take Pride and Joy in Your Journey
In this post I have talked about just two of the many joys I have experienced in my transplant journey. While I think these are important to mention, I think it is more important that I ask you, the reader, a question. That question is: do you take pride and joy in your journey?
Now, I know that many of you have experienced (and still experience) many challenges in your donation/transplant journey. However, I would encourage you to also focus on the joys. Whether it is spending time with your family, becoming involved in the donation and transplant community or just celebrating the small victories in your life, take joy. Life is not always easy but if you look at life like an adventure and have joy, you may just find your reason for living. You may just find that there is an entire community ready to support you and help you along your way.