Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Taking the gift of life, and running with it

Area teen to take part in U.S. Transplant Games

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Chris Rossi⁄The Gazette
Athena Shry of Burtonsville, a student at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, will be taking part in the U.S. Transplant Games next week.
Fifteen-year-old Athena Shry isn’t shy about her health condition.

At 9 weeks old, Shry was one of the youngest recipients of a heart transplant. The Burtonsville resident loves to share her story with others, her peers on the lacrosse team at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel or people who ask her why she carries an inhaler and can’t run very far or fast.

‘‘I’m not embarrassed about it. I’m proud,” she said.

This week, Shry said she will be equally proud to be among 2,000 people just like her at the U.S. Transplant Games — an Olympic-style event for organ recipients of all ages and athletic abilities. Shry will be competing in the 100-meter dash and singles bowling at the event, to be held July 11-16 in Pittsburgh.

Shry was born with pulmonary atresia, said her mother, Cathy Shry. The valve connecting her heart and lungs didn’t develop, and baby Athena couldn’t breathe. She survived with a breathing device while her parents anxiously waited for a heart donor.

‘‘Someone else’s child gave a generous gift and gave us the gift of life,” Cathy Shry said. ‘‘There’s no greater gift.”

Now Athena Shry is a relatively healthy, normal teenager. She has played softball all her life, loves bowling and is active with Lighthouse Summer Camp in Spencerville.

Although Athena Shry can participate in whatever she wants, she has to be careful about how hard she pushes herself. Running long distances is difficult. She tires more quickly and carries an inhaler for exercise-induced asthma, her mother said.

‘‘Because she has a heart transplant, the nerves aren’t there to communicate with the brain to say, ‘Pump harder, give me more oxygen,’” Cathy Shry said.

But Catholic Youth Organization coach David Alessandrini, who has coached Shry in basketball and softball since 2005, said Shry has never had a problem keeping up with other girls.

‘‘She’s got all the heart and enthusiasm of anybody else on the team,” he said.

Her condition also hasn’t stopped her from training for the 100-meter dash by running in the backyard with her dad, Mark, or jogging with her mother around nearby Paint Branch High School’s track.

Athena Shry said other than the usual pre-competition jitters, she’s not nervous about the games. In fact, she said she’s excited to meet people her age ‘‘who may be just like me.”

‘‘I don’t know a lot of people that have heart transplants,” she said.

But she does know 22 other organ recipients, the members of the state team heading to the U.S. Transplant Games. Athena Shry will be the youngest athlete to head to Pittsburgh with Team Maryland, which has its largest group of athletes, said team manager Latrice Price.

Price said the message of the games attracts people.

‘‘It’s an opportunity to promote organ and tissue donation on a large scale,” Price said.

Donor families and living donors also come out in support, and they are sometimes a bigger hit than the competitors, Price said.

At the last games two years ago (the U.S. games are held biennially), donor families received a standing ovation, she said.

Athena Shry is equally grateful to donors. She said she is always trying to share her story to educate people that donating organs saves lives.

Her mother said Athena plans to do that this week just by being a normal, athletic kid, surrounded by other athletes who just happen to be organ recipients.

‘‘That’s what it’s all about, is teaching people,” Cathy Shry said. ‘‘They live normal lives, and look what you can do by saving. And hopefully more people can walk away and hear her story.”