When cyclist Nate Dunn competed in the World Transplant Games in Argentina this week, he was running on more than energy bars.
Dunn, 33, underwent multiple medical procedures just four months ago due to complications from a liver transplant in July 2013. His desire to compete in this week’s games willed him out of his hospital bed, he said, and fueled him to ride 175 miles per week in preparation for the event.
“Powering through” might be the most accurate description for the strategy Dunn used to survive over the past two years. The Fair Oaks father has primary sclerosing cholangitis, a chronic disease where the bile ducts become blocked from inflammation and scarring, damaging the liver. His treatment was harrowing and painful, even after receiving a crucial liver transplant from a live donor.
But when faced with the reality of his condition, Dunn – a cycling coach and personal trainer – only pushed forward. He cycled competitively until osteoporosis, one of liver disease’s many side effects, made it too dangerous. He backpacked just weeks before his transplant, and walked the neighborhood with his baby daughter, Louisa, strapped to his back during his recovery, when he was too weak to do much else.
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This week Dunn took a break from his job to compete in the World Transplant Games with other athletes who have battled conditions requiring transplants. Founded in 1978, the games draw about 2,000 people from 50 countries to compete in 12 events including volleyball, racquet sports, cycling and golf. On his first day competing, Dunn completed his 5K race in 7 minutes, 9 seconds, taking first place in his age group and setting a new world transplant record time. On his second day, he took gold for the 20K competition.
He attributes his success to a combination of intense training and sheer ambition. The Bee sat down with Dunn shortly before he left to chat about determination, goal-setting and living life with a new organ.
Q: You were diagnosed at 18, and told you’d need a liver transplant in the next five to seven years. How did you cope with that?
A: I wasn’t sure if my health was going to turn. I went full speed, because that was the path I felt comfortable about. Making decisions based off of what might happen with my liver disease, even though that was always on my mind, the approach I took was to ignore it, to live in a state of calculated denial.
Q: Your health started to decline rapidly in 2012. How did you keep your spirits up during that time?
A: I just wanted to hang out with my friends at bike races. ... It was really helpful for me, to live in a world of really vibrant and healthy people. That was an easier path for me to deal with that decline in health, than was what it felt like to me would have been submitting to that crushing end-stage liver disease.
Q: You say you’ve always been a really driven and competitive person, as well as a competitive athlete. How far did that mentality last in the face of serious illness?
A: I learned after the transplant that sometimes you don’t get to go anymore. Sometimes you reach a depth of sickness and you can’t will yourself out of that hole. For me, ever since I was young I’ve always been sports and health and exercise, that’s what I’ve lived for. ... Being a part of that has always been a central part of my identity. That driven mentality is helpful during times like that, but it can also be torturous when you’re on the other side of that and you’re giving everything to try to get back.
Q: What were some strategies you used to deal with the frustration of not being able to be active?
A: I had to make a checklist. It’s easy to make a list of things that you can’t do. I can’t ride my bike. To even walk back and forth to the park is challenging for me. And you get consumed by all of these things that really defined your vitality and your athleticism. What really helped me in some of those darkest moments was to say “OK, this is what I can do. I can clean up the kitchen. I can prepare a simple meal for my wife when she comes home. “
Focusing on what I could do and establishing concrete objectives, that’s what really got me out of that recovery. This year I was hospitalized five times in March and in April. And it was the same process – I’m sitting in my hospital bed and I’m looking at that date in August, and I’m like, “I’ve got three months. I’m going to get discharged this week. On Monday, I’m going to bike 15 miles.”
Q: What’s it like to race against other recovering transplant patients, compared to other Sacramento cyclists?
A: As a transplant patient, I’m in world-class health. But that doesn’t mean all that much to me. I want to be competing with the (competitive cyclists) I’ve grown up with. But racing locally, getting stronger, and then getting to go to those national games and test myself against other transplant patients, it’s been incredible.
Q: Is there a sense of kinship at transplant competitions?
A: It’s intense. ... I don’t want to get around and share battle stories about transplants. It’s sad to me. Those are memories that maybe you revisit every once in a while, but I don’t really draw strength from what happened to me. For me, the camaraderie is a basic acknowledgment that these are all people that have been through the ringer. Heart transplant, lung transplant, kidney, liver – and they’re here, and they’re showing up, and they’re competing.
Q: What bike do you ride, and where around Sacramento do you take it?
A: I ride a 2015 Specialized Allez. I love the Allez because it’s nimble, durable and economical (aluminum frames are significantly cheaper than carbon frames).
For an easy spin it’s tough to beat the American River Bike Trail (ARBT). The ARBT acts as the I-5 of Sacramento bike travel, making it easy to connect to routes starting in Sacramento or Folsom. For longer rides I love riding with friends in the hills around Rescue, Cool, Auburn and Georgetown. Longer hill rides are always improved with a bit of friendly smack talk and a few stops for coffee.
On average 22 people die every day in the U.S. while awaiting a lifesaving transplant due to a lack of available organs. The waiting list for organ transplants is growing at the rate of 1,000 per month. To become an organ donor, visit donatelifecalifornia.org.
Sierra Donor Services