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The why for John Dickhout is clear.
"Because I can," says the rookie participant eager and ready to compete in his first Canadian Transplant Games, kicking off today in Toronto.
About three years ago, while on a golf course in Manila, John had a mild heart attack. Thanks to the vigilance of his wife - his golf partner at the time, and an Emergency Room nurse- he made it to the hospital in time.
An angioplasty, a defibrillator implant and a further diagnosis by a cardiologist in the Philippines left Dickhout at "risk of sudden death." It set the 53-year-old Welland, ON resident on a precarious path.
"March 25, 2013 was undoubtedly the worst moment during my journey," he says. "I had been sitting up on the edge of my hospital bed when I started to feel strange – sort of light-headed and slightly nauseous. I lay back down and took a glance at the monitor at the head of the bed. I watched as my heart rate started to drop. I felt as if a curtain was being closed around my entire room, from the bottom up," Dickhout recalls.
One option left
Two months later, after he was declared strong enough to fly to Canada, Dickhout was told by Dr. Heather Ross, cardiologist, Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, that the damage to his heart meant he had only one option: transplant.
His donor heart arrived January 25, 2016, six months earlier than anticipated. John made his gratitude at having a second chance clear in a letter of thanks penned to the donor family:
"My solemn promise to you is that the man I was before my transplant is but a fraction of the man I will become! I will devote my life to making my life, and the lives of my family even better and stronger. And much of my driving force from this day forward will be thinking of you and your lost family member, to make you all proud of your loved one's decision to be a donor."
This week, John, a fit, active, healthy, husband, father of two adult children, and heart transplant recipient makes his debut at the Canadian Transplant Games in golf and the five-kilometre road race.
The Canadian Transplant Games
The Canadian Transplant Games, held every two years, will bring together more than 200 participants from three continents to "celebrate health."
"I can think of no greater affirmation of the miracle of transplantation and the courage of both donor families and recipients," says Dr. Heather Ross, a PMCC cardiologist who has trekked all over the world with transplant patients as part of the Test Your Limits campaign to raise awareness about organ donation and raise funds for heart disease research.
Dr. Ross, whose next trek is slated for spring 2017, will also be attending this year's Canadian Transplant Games, as the lead singer of the Marginal Donors, a rock/blues band made up of transplant physicians and surgeons.
Several of Dr. Ross' patients, among others treated at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre, will take part.
'I am more alive now'
Natalie Dijhanian is another PMCC patient competing in this year's Games.
"I am more alive now than I have ever been in the past 10 years, since I was diagnosed with heart failure at the age of 23," says the Montreal native now living in Chicago.
"I had just given birth to our first daughter. Two weeks later, I was told I was in heart failure and was diagnosed with post-partum cardiomyopathy. I lived with heart failure for 10 years until getting a new heart was the only way I could continue being a wife and mom. My heart was too weak to keep going. Medication could not help it any longer," she recalls.
"I was too deep in the ditch and transplant was the only ladder that might allow me to climb out."
This week the married mom of two teen girls will make her Canadian Transplant Games debut competing in badminton, biking 20km and swimming - armed with gratitude, courage and determination.
"To show to myself I can do it and to show Canada and the world the limitless possibilities we heart recipients can achieve. One would think heart recipients are delicate. We are in a way, but not physically. We have healthy hearts thanks to our donors and can reach new summits.
"I can do things I would have never imagined," Natalie says, including recently hiking 79 km in eight days through Glacier National Park in Montana.
Natalie says her heart transplant has changed her perspective on life.
"This new heart is a gift that allows me to continue living, to never take life for granted and always enjoy those simple pleasures in life."
The eighth Canadian Transplant Games officially kick off tonight, at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto.