State’s first organ transplant games in Chandler today The Chandler Arizonan

State’s first organ transplant games in Chandler today

State’s first organ transplant games in Chandler today
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By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Michael Scozzaro’s multiple kidney transplants have not inhibited his competitive streak.

The longtime Chandler resident has won several medals over the years by competing in Olympic-style games designed exclusively for recipients of organ donations.

One medal that was particularly memorable for Scozzaro was earned during a tournament in Ohio.

He had already survived two transplants by this point and had begun participating in Transplant Games of America, an annual event that invites donor recipients from across the country to compete in a series of athletic events.

Before the Ohio tournament, Scozzaro reached out to the mother of his kidney donor and invited her to the games. She accepted and flew out to the Midwest to watch Scozzaro swim his way to the winner’s circle.

The mother was given the honor of placing the medal around Scozzaro’s neck.

But something didn’t feel right. He knew the medal didn’t really belong to him.

“Then I took it off and gave it back to her,” Scozzaro recalled.

It was a small gesture, he said, compared to the gift the woman’s son gave Scozzaro by being an organ donor.

Moments like these are what make the Transplant Games special and they’re why the event is coming to the East Valley for the first time this year.

The Transplant Community Alliance, a local nonprofit, is hosting Arizona’s first Transplant Games in Chandler starting at 1 p.m. today, Dec. 7, at Seton Catholic Preparatory High School, 1150 N. Dobson Road. Details are at transplantaz.org.

Zoe Severyn, the nonprofit’s executive director, said the event is not so much about medals or sports – its more an opportunity for organ recipients to acknowledge the second chance they’ve been given.

“We’d rather see the recipients out there in the field celebrating life and their health,” she said.

At least 100 players, ranging in age from toddlers to the elderly, will get to demonstrate their athleticism in a variety of track and field events, Severyn said.

They’ve undergone transplants for hearts, lungs, kidneys and livers. Some will participate in high-stress events like relay races, and others can opt out for simpler activities, like cornhole.

Spirit, the Fiesta Bowl’s sunny mascot, is expected to make an appearance and will escort juvenile players through a kiddy obstacle course.

The Transplant Community Alliance is hosting the community event to raise awareness of the importance of organ donation and highlight the successes of transplantation.

On its website, the alliance says it “wishes to help build a strong transplant community with support for post-transplant patients to have an active, healthy lifestyle.”

The games are a fun multi-sport festival event for anyone who has received a life-saving transplant surgery or are living donors. It will include dashes, relay races, high jumps, long jumps and a Youth Olympiad obstacle course.

The family-friendly event includes a Heroes Wall to honor donors, food trucks, kids activities, a health expo, a cornhole competition and pickleball demonstration.

Although admission is free, spectators are encouraged to make a donation to further the alliance’s work.

“That should be a lot of fun,” Severyn added.

Members of the Transplant Alliance have regularly traveled out of state for the national and international Transplant Games. The annual event was first held 30 years ago and attracts thousands of competitors from all over the country.

Severyn said her group thought they could replicate a similar competition on a smaller scale for local organ recipients.

It’s so important to spread awareness on organ donation, she said, and let Arizonans know how vital these operations are for saving lives.

Michael Scozzaro first heard of the Transplant Games shortly after undergoing his second kidney transplant in 1993.

He had been a talented wrestler in high school, but his athletic career was cut short after his kidneys started to fail in his early 20s.

Through the games, Scozzaro discovered a community of survivors who understood his fears and struggles.

There are so many inspiring stories of patients overcoming terrible odds, he said, because there’s so much need and only so many donors.

Scozzaro has had four kidney transplants during his lifetime and hopes the fourth will be his last. It hasn’t always been easy for his family, he added, but the transplant community has helped them to keep moving forward.

“It was a rough road and we were able to come back from it,” he said.

A recipient’s lifestyle changes dramatically after receiving their donated organ, Severyn said, and they may not be prepared for the changes.

Recipients are heavily medicated and discouraged from visiting public spaces because their immune system is so weak.

“They often feel isolated and that can lead to depression and anxiety,” Severyn said.

The Transplant Community Alliance, which was founded in Tucson in 1988, provides free resources to make the post-donation period smoother for recipients. In the last year, Severyn said her organization has had 300 people attend its support groups and has provided financial assistance to over 80 families.

Severyn hopes the games will become an annual event with the help of local sponsors like Dignity Health, the Mayo Clinic, and Donor Network of Arizona.

Scozzaro said he’s glad Arizona will now have its own Transplant Games. There’s so much information to learn about organ donation, he said, and these types of events help to spread the word.

It’s been 12 years since the Chandler resident last had a kidney replaced. He still worries he might need another transplant, but he tries not to let his anxiety consume him.

“It doesn’t completely go away,” Scozzaro said, “but you also have to balance that with living your life and appreciating what you have in the moment.”

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