A 57-year-old woman with a limited athletic background for most of her life, Donna Stout admits to being surprised that she's vying today for a swimming medal at a national competition in Houston.
Of course, the Batavia wife and mother knows she wouldn't be anywhere, doing anything, if not for the donor who gave her a new heart and a second chance.
"I was lying in a hospital bed near death, and look at me now," says Stout, whose confidence gets a boost by knowing that in the 2010 and 2012 Transplant Games of America she finished fourth, just off the medal stand. "It's such an amazing feeling as a nonathlete to walk in and walk around that stadium like real Olympic athletes do."
Barely able to walk on Oct. 27, 2007, an unusually exhausted Stout thought she had leg problems.
"It felt like I had concrete blocks on my feet," says Stout, who had felt fine the week before. Home alone, Stout waited until her husband, Rick, finished his Saturday shift driving a delivery truck for Coca-Cola before asking him to drive her to the emergency room at Cadence Health Delnor Hospital in Geneva.
"I don't know what's wrong with me, but something isn't right," she told the medical staff.
"The emergency room was full, and before I could even sit down, they rushed her right in," Rick Stout remembers. Things seemed under control when he left her on Sunday night.
"When did I crash?" Donna Stout asks.
"Which time?" her husband replies.
At 3 a.m. that Monday, he got the call to come to the hospital. His wife's heart had stopped, and medical teams used shock paddles to get it started again. A medical helicopter flew her to Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood. A balloon pump was inserted in her aorta to keep her blood circulating, and another machine controlled her breathing through a tube down her throat that made it impossible for her to talk. She remembers regaining consciousness and seeing their daughter, Heather, and one of her five brothers.
"I was looking at the doctor's white coat and seeing that it said 'Loyola,'" she says, recalling being unaware that she had been moved. "I overheard the doctor say, 'She's going to need a heart transplant,' and I was like, 'What?'"
Doctors told Rick Stout that his wife could survive maybe 30 days without a transplant.
"I got my heart on day 29," Donna Stout says of the transplant that came two days after Thanksgiving. "I know that it was from a young woman who was 25. She had a 9-month-old son."
The lungs of the donor, who died of a traumatic brain injury, went to a young woman from Elburn, Stout says.
"You're sisters by parts," her husband says.
Donna Stout has written several letters to the donor's survivors, but they haven't replied, yet. She has told their story to 86 classes and more than 2,300 students. She speaks at charity dinners, fairs, festivals and Kiwanis Club meetings.
Stout has become such an advocate for organ donation that she is the only Illinoisan to win one of the $750 scholarships given to organ and tissue recipients and donor families attending the 2014 Games. Her diagnosis of left ventricular noncompaction cardiomyopathy, a rare congenital condition, has led to testing that has other relatives with the gene receiving early treatment to preserve their hearts.
"Everything happens for a reason," Donna Stout says.
There is a sad story behind the joy for every one of the 53 Illinois team members participating in this year's Transplant Games, notes Colette Jordan, a 54-year-old liver recipient from Lisle, who took home a bronze medal in doubles bowling during the last Transplant Games.
During Saturday night's Opening Ceremony, the families of donors carried a quilt honoring the gifts made by their loved ones. That quilt contains a memorial square Jordan made to honor Tom Kaiserauer, whose unexpected death at 41 in 2006 resulted in the liver donation that saved Jordan's life.
"Everybody's crying, especially when the donor families come walking in," Stout says.
"It's very emotional," says Jordan, who met Tom's parents, Otto and Annette Kaiserauer, during a 2011 tree-planting ceremony in Naperville to honor organ donors. "We are very close," Jordan says.
"Tom always gave instead of received. He put others before himself," Otto Kaiserauer says of his son. "We are very sad about the loss of Tom, but there is a silver lining in that Colette got Tom's liver. He saved her life."
The Games honor donors, celebrate their life-giving thoughtfulness and encourage others to donate.
"It's a wonderful experience," says Jordan, who, with her husband, John, has sons Daniel, 30, Bryan, 22, and Nicole, 20, and grandsons Ashton, 4, and Willem, 1.
The 21 athletes in the Illinois contingent include 19 with donor organs, a living donor who gave part of her liver to her baby and another donor who gave a kidney.
"You look around the stadium, and if it wasn't for donors, none of us would be here," Stout says. "It proves donation does work. That's why the Games are there, to show how people triumph over death and go back to living new lives and better lives."