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by Daniel Paulling

May 11, 2018

Three competitors impacted by organ transplants swim on the second day of Spring Nats

David Farmer vividly remembers the day his life changed forever.

He’d been walking on a Sunday in mid-January 2011 along the lakefront in Chicago with his wife when she told him his eyes looked yellow. He scheduled a doctor’s appointment and had his blood drawn. His doctor called back and told him to get to an emergency room immediately.

“My liver numbers were off the charts,” says Farmer, who swims for Chicago Athletic Clubs Masters. “My own immune system attacked my liver, causing acute liver failure.”

Farmer went into a coma one week later. When he woke up, he was rushed to the top of the transplant list. His chances of dying had increased to more than 50 percent.

The 48-year-old received a liver transplant on Feb. 18, hours after his donor died in a car wreck.

Farmer competed in the 2016 Transplant Games of America, where he met Matt Castle. The two became close friends after they kept edging the other off the top spot of the podium in their age group. Farmer beat Castle by five-hundredths of a second in the 100-yard breaststroke and three-hundredths of a second in the 50 butterfly, and Castle beat him by 2.9 seconds in the 50 breast.

“We had so much fun with it because of the joy of the sport,” Farmer says. “We did a really good time, [the other would say,] ‘Yeah, you did it.’ It gives you a cause to celebrate someone’s successes because you know the hardships and the hurdles they’ve gone through. When you see someone succeed, you want them to succeed and you want to will them to succeed.”

Castle was returning to swimming after receiving a heart transplant in January 2010. The 46-year-old had been diagnosed with congestive heart failure and an enlarged heart five years earlier, at the age of 33, something he says he met with disbelief.

The Puget Sound Masters swimmer found the idea of receiving a donation difficult.

“I struggled with knowing somebody was going to pass away for me to have this gift,” says Castle, who went a 1 minute, 10.36 seconds in the 100 backstroke and 32.04 in the 50 breast Friday at the 2018 Nationwide U.S. Masters Swimming Spring National Championship.

He wrote a letter a few years ago to the family whose loved one died for Castle to live. He hasn’t heard back, but he’s OK with that. Castle is happy to have thanked them.

Castle, who marked on his driver’s license that he wanted to be an organ donor before his heart transplant, now speaks to driver’s education classes about the positives of being an organ donor. Ninety-five percent of U.S. adults support organ donation, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ website, but only 54 percent are registered to do so.

Castle helped Farmer, who describes himself as an inconsistent swimmer in high school and college, with changing his mindset. He recalls throwing his goggles and thinking he was done with the sport of swimming after barely missing the qualifying time for the 100 fly for the NCAA Division III championships during his senior year at Hamilton College.

But Farmer did return to swimming and qualified for Spring Nationals in the same event, something he calls going full circle. He went a 1:06.52 in the 100 fly on Friday.

He’s grateful for the bad days because, in the mind of someone who had a lifesaving transplant, his situation could be so much worse. He’s enjoying his second chance.

“That means I’m alive, healthy, and celebrating the gift of life,” Farmer says. “It just makes me feel like I’m a little kid again. I’m so happy. It’s almost overwhelming.”

The Gift of Giving

After her son Chase was diagnosed with kidney failure in June 2015, Teresa McDowell’s first thought was that she was too old to donate one at the age of 65. No, doctors told her, she wasn’t.

McDowell then went through a lengthy process to determine whether she’d be a match after her oldest son turned out not to be one. She was and donated a kidney in September 2016.

“I was happy that I could get him off dialysis and so now he can live a normal life,” McDowell says. “When you do dialysis, it’s 4 hours a day and three times a week, so you’re spending over 12 hours doing dialysis. Really, that wipes out your life. So, I gave him back his life.”

McDowell, now 67, had previously marked on her driver’s license that she wanted to be an organ donor but joked that she didn’t expect to give one up while she was still alive. She says that both she and her son have made full recoveries from their operations and are doing well.

She went a 2:52.24 in her 200 freestyle, finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th, and a 1:28.36 in the 100 back, which gave her ninth place.

The St. Louis Area Masters swimmer credits her swimming—she swims three or four times a week and competes regularly, which has allowed her to record 132 individual Top 10s—with helping her to be able to donate a kidney and help her son, her age notwithstanding,

“I like to work out and compete, and I think because I swim that is why I am so healthy,” McDowell says. “[My doctor] said your healthy lifestyle is what caused you to be healthy enough to give a kidney. I’m healthier than 50-year-olds.”


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  • National Championships
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  • Overcoming Adversity
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