Will Jay admits his liver transplant experience was a tad out of the ordinary – but he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
“I am very lucky now to be recovered,” said Jay, 31. “It was a pretty rough experience in general, but if that is what I’d have to do in order to live the way I am living now - I’d do it.
“As long as it was still at Vanderbilt,” Jay quickly added.
In 2004, Jay a middle school technology education instructor in Knox County, began feeling fatigued and became jaundiced.
Jay was diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a rare disease that damages and blocks the bile ducts of the liver. The chronic, progressing disease eventually leads to liver failure. Liver transplantation is the definitive treatment in PSC patients with advanced disease.
Jay underwent a liver transplant in July 2005. He left the hospital only to return 10 days later. A massive esophageal bleed followed by several complications including kidney failure and pneumonia placed him in the hospital awaiting another transplant.
“I am so thankful that I was at Vanderbilt,” said Jay. “The care there was amazing and they were able to keep up with all that was going on with me – and there was a lot.
“I credit Vanderbilt with saving my life – twice.”
In August of 2005, Jay received his second liver, but stayed at Vanderbilt for a few months to recover.
A former competitive track and field athlete in high school and college, Jay knew the value of determination and a good attitude.
“My athletic background helped me a lot,” recalled Jay. “I was not necessarily a stronger person physically because I became incredibly sick and weak. But I stayed positive and had a goal of just walking out of the hospital.”
At 6 foot tall, Jay’s healthy weight was 155 pounds. He left the hospital at a frail 110 pounds.
“When I got out of the hospital I could barely talk and walk. It took me a good four to six months of physical therapy to regain my strength. I learned that no matter how tough the struggle, no matter how difficult the situation, you have to have the right mentality.
“For me it was definitely mind over matter.”
It is that attitude that put Jay back on the track – a place he loved and excelled.
Initially, running was a way for him to get back into shape. He later became a track and field coach for youth in the Knoxville area. At the urging of a fellow coach, he looked into the National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games, an Olympic-style competition. Held every two years, the sporting event unites thousands of people from across the country affected by organ donation and transplantation.
He competed in his first Transplant Games in the summer of 2008 in Pittsburgh placing first in all three events – the 100 meter, the 200 meter and the long jump.
“The experience up there was amazing,” said Jay. “It was really a great representation of all ages of people with all kinds of transplants.
“For me to participate in the transplant games, it showed others just how well you can do after a transplant. To see most of the participants, you would never know they were transplant recipients. And the other great thing is seeing all the donor families. It’s pretty emotional meeting them and talking to them.”
The World Games were held last summer in Australia. Again, Jay placed first in each of his individual events. He was also a member of the U.S. winning 4/100 meter relay team.
Tentative plans call for him to travel to Wisconsin this summer for the 20th annual Transplant Games. But his coaching duties might take precedence. Some of the children he coaches are elite athletes with major meets coming up this summer.
Whatever role Jay plays this summer, as a coach or athlete, he is committed to being an example of excellence.
“When I was recovering from my transplant, I had to think about breathing – literally. I had to put my mind to it. It was really tough to stay calm, relax and breathe. I was hoping everything was healing and that there was going to be a next day.
“For me, if I could get through each day, I knew there would be another one coming.”
It’s a train of thought he has passed along to his young athletes.
“I didn’t really understand an old coach’s mantra – today is a good day to train – until I went through my transplant,” said Jay. “I tell my kids, if you want the results tomorrow, you have to put the work in today.
“You only have so much time … It’s all about the attitude and making yourself better today so you can get to tomorrow.”