The Games you never want to enterWhen Stan Henkeman sprinted 200m in an international sporting competition in Durban in July, he wasnt't only running for himself.
He was running for the 20-year-old man whose heart is beating inside him. It’s an excellent heart, by the sound of it, which has already let Henkeman set new category records for the 100m and 200m sprints.
That’s not bad for a man who couldn’t walk 10 steps without gasping for breath a few years ago. Henkeman, 55, had the heart transplant five years ago, and strives to live in a way that honours the young man his new life came from. An old mind with a young heart is a powerful combination, he says.
Henkeman is vice-chairman of the SA Transplant Sports Association (SATSA) and a member of the local organising committee for this year’s World Transplant Games (WTG).
If you’ve never heard of the WTG, be grateful. “It’s one of those things that people don’t know about, like I didn’t know about transplants before it became part of my reality. Now my family and friends have become organ donors because it’s part of their lives too.”
The Durban event attracted 1,800 competitors from 49 countries, some of them more than 70 years old. It’s remarkable how Henkeman has become a South African champion and a leading light in the WTG organising committee, considering that he never ran before his heart attack.
He joined SATSA two years after his transplant and competed in the national games that year. “To my utter astonishment I set records for the 100m and 200m and long jump in my category,” he says. He went on to represent South Africa in Australia in 2009 and Sweden in 2011, and in Durban he competed in the 100m and 200m sprints, ball throwing and petanque, which he dubs marbles for old men.
“If you think you have to wrap yourself in cotton wool because you’re sick, then you will be sick. Your attitude is important and you have to be active because that helps with your recovery,” he says.
When he quietly tells me about a vision he had in hospital two days after his transplant, a shiver runs through me. “I wasn’t asleep, I know that, and I saw somebody in my mind. I saw somebody lying on the side of the road. It was a young man but he looked really peaceful, and I thought ‘is this the young man whose heart I received, and what is he trying to tell me?’ I took it that his calm expression means he’s trying to say he’s ok with this. And from that moment I received this heart as a gift and mouthed thank you.”
Ironically, perhaps, Henkeman was hiking, not running, when he had a stress-related heart attack in 2001. The damage was so severe that a transplant was mooted, but he chose to keep the heart he had and take drugs to keep it pumping.
“I was literally in tears just at the thought that my heart was going to be taken out,” he says. After five years of low-quality life he was diagnosed with end-stage heart failure, with no option except death or a transplant.
He was a teacher, but by then he could no longer work as he could barely function. “I couldn’t walk 10 steps without having to stop,” he says. “You go to bed tired and wake up tired and you’re perpetually tired. For me the big thing was this disconnect between an active mind and an incapable body. I had to struggle with a mind that was alert and a body that just couldn’t do anything.”
There was a very real possibility of dying before a suitable heart became available, but the life-saving call came eight months later.
The transplant took six hours and he slept for another 24. When he woke up his first awareness was that he could breath freely. “It was as simple and profound as that. I could take a deep breath without spluttering and coughing,” he says. “Then you realise you are alive. It takes a while to realise you actually have another heart inside you, and then you struggle with two overwhelming emotions: gratitude that you are alive, but the other emotion that very quickly overshadows it is guilt. Guilt that someone else died.”
His vision of the young man made him thankful that he still had a future although someone else had died, and he decided to live a life that honours the donor.
Patients are only told scanty details about the donor, and Henkeman was told his heart came from a 20-year-old man killed in a car crash. He wrote to the parents via the Organ Donor Foundation. “I told them how grateful I was and that the work I do will honour his memory. He is always there with me when I run. It’s the two of us doing it - my old mind and his young heart.”
Medics can’t say how long he will live, but his heart is young and his body accepted it well. In gratitude, he believes he has a responsibility to improve the society he lives in.
After spending eight years as a high school teacher in Mitchell’s Plain and lecturing at a teacher’s training college, he left to forge a new career with the Centre for Conflict Resolution. In 2011 he joined the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), which aims to continue the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by building a fair, democratic and inclusive society.
Henkeman manages a programme called Building a Sustainable Society, and sees an interesting link between his job and his sporting endeavours. “Transplant sports are really about a inclusive society. It's such a leveller because things like colour and class don’t determine the outcome as much as they do in mainstream sports,” he says. “For the first time I didn’t have to explain anything to anybody because you are with people who have a sense of what you have gone through. There’s a camaraderie and much more that keeps us together than keeps us apart, so I see a very strong correlation between what I do with the IJR and the sports I’m involved in.”
His eldest son was with him when he suffered his heart attack on the hike, and 10 months after the transplant the two of them walked up Table Mountain. A year later they completed a five-day Fish River Canyon hike. “That was an important psychological thing for me, because my son saw my demise and it was important that he also witnessed my recovery. It was important to put that demise behind us.”
SATSA members see sport as a way to express their gratitude and prove you can live a full life after a transplant. “We are celebrating life, and you can only fully understand that if you have seen your life ebbing away,” says Henkeman. “You come out of the operation and feel a new life starting.”
He hopes that will reassure others who face the same trauma on the operating table, and comfort those who agree to donate the organs when a love one dies.
First published in The Sunday Independent.
The Organ Donor Foundation: www.odf.org.za or tel: 0800 226611
The South African Transplant Sports Association: www.transplantsports.org.za or chairmanWillie Uys on 042-298-0014, cell: 082-442-1210.