Abbott Blog: Wrestler’s mentality helped my brother before and after heart surgery to win a Transplant Games medal

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | Aug. 17, 2018, 11:37 a.m. (ET)
Photo of Ken Abbott doing long jump by Patricia Fox. Photo of Ken Abbott with Transplant Games medal by Eleanor Abbott.

Wrestlers are different and special people. For more than 35 years, I have made a living telling the stories of their amazing lives and what makes them tick.

We all have personal wrestling stories and history. I have infrequently told my wrestling family story, but the situation with my younger brother Ken in recent years deserves some comment. I am fully convinced that his wrestling background is a part of the reason that he is alive and thriving today.

I am from a wrestling family. My parents, both physical education teachers had no wrestling background until my older brother Jim decided to join wrestling in eighth grade and I tagged along as a seventh grader at Oldfield Junior High in New York. We got hooked. Naturally, we dragged our little brother Ken into the sport and the lifestyle.

Ken grew up with wrestling, learning the sport first in our living room. When Ken was still in elementary school, Jim and I convinced our folks to enter Ken in the off-season freestyle events. Ken was fourth in the county, third in the state and second in the Northeast Region, in that order. He could flat-out wrestle, the best pure wrestler among the Abbott boys.

Ken was the first freshman in our school district ever allowed to leave the Junior High team and wrestle on the varsity. He ran a few miles every day from Oldfield Junior High to Harborfields High School to varsity practice. He was our school’s first four-time County medalist, which is huge in Suffolk County, Long Island.

He did some Div. I wrestling as a freshman, but ultimately transferred to a school without wrestling to pursue his science education degree and career. Ken never left wrestling, because when he got into teaching, he coached at the high school and middle school levels.

Fast forward to adulthood, and my brother gets a rare disease, sarcoidosis. I will stay out of the medical description, as I will surely get it wrong, but basically the disease progressively damaged his organs, including his heart. As things progressed, Ken was determined to battle it, getting into and remaining in fantastic shape. He hit the treadmill hard, walked, kept active, everything he could do. It was a “no-excuse” approach to a serious medical issue.

Eventually, he needed a heart transplant. A husband and father of two amazing daughters, Ken had a lot to live for. At one point, he had an instrument placed in his chest that made his heart beat, taking over that function. He had to wear a battery pack every day to power the implant, and had to plug himself into the electric outlet at night. He continued working out, doing everything possible to be the ideal patient. As his wife Eleanor said, he was compliant to all of the things that the doctors asked for. Because of his physical condition and his attitude, he became an excellent candidate for success if he were to get a donor heart. It became a waiting game, hoping that a heart could become available for him.

About 18 months ago, during the holiday season, Ken received the gift of life. An anonymous person passed away and a family decided to become a donor. Ken had to hustle into New York City for surgery, just two days before Christmas. It was the greatest holiday gift my family ever received. Ken went into surgery with the same positive, determined attitude that he had throughout the entire process.

When he came out “on the other side,” as he called it, the surgery was a success. He had a new heart that worked in his body. Ken jumped into his recovery with the same wrestler’s attitude as he had before surgery. He was quickly walking all around the hospital, and when he was released, he walked up and down the stairs in his house until he had enough steps during the day. He showed extreme discipline, documenting everything to do with medicine, diet and exercise. There was a laser focus. Against the odds, he was back at work in April, about four months after surgery, which was his personal goal, but way earlier than was expected by everybody else.

Ken has returned to “normal” life, as much as you can as a transplant recipient, and has used his illness as a teaching tool in his classroom. He has also had a number of TV and newspaper interviews to explain what happened to him and to promote the idea that people should consider organ donation.

As Ken continued his workouts this year, he decided to train for and compete in the Donate Life Transplant Games, a multi-sport athletic event where the participants were transplant recipients of all ages. Ken got himself into good condition for this, but a medical setback in the months leading to the competition limited his ability to maintain that high level of preparation. Ken attended the event anyway, as a member of the newly formed Live On New York team, and travelled to Salt Lake City in early August. My wife Patricia and I took a few days off from work to drive out to Northern Utah and support him and his team. Ken’s goals were slightly changed from before his setback. In some events, the goal was to finish, but for sure, in all events, he was seeking to do the best he could, and perhaps get some personal bests.

Patricia and I got there in time for Opening Ceremonies, having missed a few events Ken entered earlier in the day. He signed up for a “virtual” triathlon, which included entering three events that included swimming, running and cycling. He did not train for swimming, and finished last in his age-group at the event. In cycling, he had a personal best time which he was proud of, but did not finish among the medalists in his age-group.

The Opening Ceremony was in Smith’s Ballpark, which houses Salt Lake City’s Triple A baseball team. It was organized like many Opening Ceremonies in sports, with entertainment to start it off, and then the march of delegations into the stadium. All of the teams had different uniforms, many celebrating the culture of their state and region (kind of reminded me of Fargo for wrestling). Ken was jubilant as he entered the stadium with his teammates, dancing a bit, waving to the crowd, with a huge smile on his face. There was a joy for him, and for all of the athletes. All of the competitors were truly winners.

I found Opening Ceremonies very moving, especially when they brought out the Donor Families. All of the different regional teams also bring members of donor families to the event, and they are honored and thanked for their amazing sacrifice. What struck me was one mother who marched in carrying a banner showing a professional football player. This sports event was as much about the donor families as it was about the recipients. Among those honored are also living donors, those who give an organ while still alive. The featured band during the opening ceremony had a talented lead singer who had donated his kidney to his dear friend, who also played in the band. The event celebrated life, which is the gift given to all of the recipients. Truly inspiring stuff.

Ken entered a bunch of events, but had a break in his schedule, so we drove out to an island in the Great Salt Lake, where he was able to float in the salt water as part of a science lesson, and we got very close to a bunch of wild buffalo. His next event was a basketball game, where his team, which really had nobody who ever played the game, faced a team with some talented athletes. It was a mismatch, but Live On New York battled hard. We enjoyed watching our short former wrestler try to cover a 6’5” star athlete who clearly played college hoops or above.

The next day was track and field, and Ken had entered three events. He had to run a 1500 meters, which was the final event of the virtual triathlon. Patricia and I were on the infield of the track, and Patricia was shooting photos of Ken and his teammates. Ken was concerned about being able to finish this run, but he powered through with a respectable time, not near his best but a strong effort considering.

After recovering from the run, he did his other two field events. He had three tries at the long jump, which seemed to go pretty well for him. Ken was able to fall forward on each jump, which was the recommended technique. During his illness and recovery, Ken had lost a bunch of weight and was not too far over his old wrestling weight. Patricia and I joked with him that he had an advantage in the long jump because he didn’t have much weight on him. He next went to the softball throw, which is like the shot put but you long-toss a softball. Ken probably did that in honor of our father, who played semi-pro baseball well into his 40’s and played softball pretty much the rest of his life.

As wrestlers always do, Ken was able to meet some other former wrestlers among the athletes at the Games. One guy was a wrestler and coach on Team St. Louis, and you could tell it for sure by the way he carried himself. There was another athlete from Team Iowa that he met at the softball throw who said he was a four-time state wrestling qualifier in high school. The man had a story about how he was put on his back during one of the Iowa state meets and he saw Dan Gable come by the mat to watch, which inspired him to recover. He said that “nobody wants to let Dan Gable see them get pinned.” I have always known that wrestlers seem to find each other in large crowds.

Patricia and I departed after Ken’s track and field events and stopped part of the way home to spend some time at Arches National Park. Ken and Eleanor kept us up to date on his other competitions via text. He did some racquetball, volleyball and more basketball before he was done.

A huge smile came to both Patricia and I when we received a text with picture of Ken proudly wearing a Transplant Games bronze medal. He took third in his age group in the long jump. This fired him up, for sure, as it was a product of his competitive spirit in all of the different sports he entered. He missed out on one other medal, placing fourth in the virtual triathlon.

As the weekend concluded, Ken talked about the next Transplant Games, scheduled for two years from now at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Not only did he want to win more medals, but he also wanted to help volunteer to recruit a larger group of athletes for the Live On New York team. He has already scheduled a picnic at his home on the beach for the entire New York team, so they could continue their friendship and plan for the future.

This experience had an impact on me in an emotional way, as we were there when Ken faced all of the challenges which ultimately brought him to the Transplant Games. As a professional in the sports industry, I was reminded about why we do things and what is truly important about sports.

Click here for more information on the Donate Life Transplant Games

Click here for information on organ donation