JoAnn Villanueva and Janice Gill

JoAnn Villanueva and her sister, Janice Gill, train for their swimming event.

The Transplant Games of America is a multi-sport festival event for individuals who have undergone life-saving transplant surgeries. Competition events are open to living donors, organ transplant recipients, bone marrow recipients, and a limited number of corneal and tissue transplant recipients. More than an athletic event, the Transplant Games of America highlight the critical importance of organ, eye, and tissue donation, while celebrating the lives of organ donors and recipients.

The Transplant Games of America are special to sisters JoAnn Villanueva and Suzanne Ruff, and their entire family. JoAnn has PKD, and Suzanne does not. In 2004, Suzanne donated her kidney to JoAnn. “The Games started as a way to show the world that transplants work,” Suzanne said. “It is a celebration of life as donors and recipients come together.”

Their first experience with the Games came in 1994 when their mother, Joan Gill, participated and won the bronze medal in golf in her age group. Joan received a transplant in 1988 after ten years on dialysis from PKD.

Then, in 1996, Suzanne and JoAnn’s sister, Janice Gill, competed in the Transplant Games along with their mother Joan. Janice also has PKD and received a transplant in 1995 the day before she was scheduled to start dialysis. She won a gold medal in the long jump, even though she had a cast on her leg from a stress fracture.

In 2000, Joan carried the flag for the State of Illinois team into the arena at Epcot where the Games were held, as the team member with the oldest transplanted organ.

“As a kidney recipient, I would encourage people to participate to show donor families and living donors that their gift of life has given us the opportunity to do what we dream about,” JoAnn said. “It is a way to honor the donor family. My mother and sister received kidneys from deceased donors. It is a great way to show our gratitude and say thank you.”

As a thank you to Suzanne, JoAnn swam in the 2006 games. She was nervous, but she did it. “It was the only reason I got in the pool,” she said. “She went into surgery for me, I can swim for her. It was easier to appear in a swimsuit than to honor someone who saved your life. But I had to show Suzanne what she did for me. It is another way to say thank you.”

In 2010, living donors were allowed to compete and Suzanne ran in the 5k.

JoAnn and Suzanne strongly encourage people to participate in the Transplant Games. “It doesn’t matter if you place first or last,” Suzanne said. “The cheers around you are as loud for last as they are for first. You don’t have to be an incredible athlete to participate. Being in front of the fans cheering you on is the best way to show gratitude and that organ donation works.

Suzanne writes about her family’s battle with PKD and specifically, the 2006 Transplant Games, in her book, The Reluctant Donor. Purchase the book here and 20 percent of sales will go to the PKD Foundation.