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July 10, 2008

GSPH staffer preps for Transplant Games

When the National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games open tomorrow in Pittsburgh, one University staff member will be competing for Team Pittsburgh in the 3-on-3 basketball tournament at the highest of three competitive levels.

Thanks to the generosity of his sister, who donated a kidney, George McClure is back to work and back on the court in time for this year’s Transplant Games.

The biennial games, staged in part this year on the Pittsburgh campus, are expected to draw 8,000 to the city July 11-16 — athletes who have received an organ transplant, as well as living donors and families of deceased donors.

(For more information and a schedule of the Transplant Games, visit

In spring 2006, George McClure was tired constantly, too exhausted to keep up with his two young sons, too sick to work at his job in the Graduate School of Public Health. So he left Pitt that April.

“I remember a day I came home after running around with my kids and chasing them and I said, ‘Oh, I need a break,’ so I sat on the steps and less than five minutes later I was sound asleep — on the steps,” McClure said. “I was tired all the time and sleeping a good portion of the weekends. I was really exhausted. Every day felt like it was work just to get through it.”

He knew the reason: A couple years earlier, he had been diagnosed with damaged kidneys that resulted from hypertension. His condition worsened. By 2006, unable to work and limited as a parent, he was facing a future restricted by exhaustion and regular kidney dialysis sessions.

Now, barely two years later, McClure is back at work at GSPH, with a recent promotion, and playing competitive basketball on weekends at his neighborhood playground in Pleasant Hills.

And smiling. He smiles at the screen-saver picture on his computer of sons Cornell, age 7, and Josef, age 5. He smiles when he talks of the support of his wife, Cathy. He smiles as he tells the story of his younger sister Nicole Carter, who donated a kidney for his transplant — without batting an eye. “At some point she just said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I actually didn’t even have to ask. Just my sister being there during the surgery made a big difference,” McClure said.

The 39-year-old McClure worked on the Department of Infectious Diseases and Microbiology’s staff from 2004 to 2006 as a site coordinator for the Pennsylvania/MidAtlantic AIDS Education and Training Center. After recovering from his Jan. 22, 2007, kidney transplant, McClure was re-hired this past January and was promoted in May to fiscal administrator of the GSPH site.

McClure is a self-described man of faith and optimism who finds the positive in just about everything, including his transplant at UPMC Montefiore, which was performed by surgeons Amit Basu and Henkie Tan.

“I remember I was getting an IV from the anesthesiologist, and I was laughing at him because he had on one of these net hats and a plastic cap,” McClure recalled. “The last thing I said before I went under was: ‘You remind me of the high school cafeteria lunch lady.’ I had a really good transplant. There was no pain, really, no problem. It’s almost like I had a fun time doing it, for such a serious event. They made it so easy to do that I actually had a good time with the staff members. We joked around and talked quite a bit. Your attitude means a lot.”

Ditto for his donor sister, he said. “My sister shared that attitude,” McClure said. “She’s always smiling. She’s always upbeat. Her faith is there as well, so together we are like a comedy team. We love to laugh, we love to enjoy life.”

Three hours after the six-hour surgery, the siblings were “racing” down the hospital corridors.

“You’re attached to a bunch of cords and wires but you can get up and walk around. It was 3 o’clock in the morning — and my sister and I are clowns — so we get the walkers, and we’re racing with the walkers. Meanwhile, we’re going really, really slow. It was a slow race, the tortoise and the tortoise,” he joked.

“But, as always, we were making the best of a tough situation. I don’t think there was a day either before or after the surgery where we didn’t smile or laugh. We had some tough days — they say that the surgery can be harder on the donor than the recipient — but every day we had something that we were thankful for. We never take a single day for granted. That’s a beautiful thing.”

Not that the transplant experience was a walk in the park, McClure stressed.

Prior to the surgery, McClure’s primary care physician sent him to Nabil Mikhael, a specialist who monitored his health up to and following the transplant surgery.

There were numerous tests McClure had to endure. “It’s a little bit of everything. There are some people who aren’t healthy enough to go through this, so they do a stress test on your heart and they do a series of tests to make sure that this is a good option for you,” McClure said.

In addition, there’s a day of testing for both the recipient and potential donor to evaluate organ compatibility. “My wife was also willing to donate, but for compatibility, my sister was the better of the two candidates,” he said.

His doctors did not put time limits or odds on recovery. “They do tell you the seriousness of it. They’re very descriptive about it. I’m fortunate because my transplant came before I had to go on dialysis,” he said. “The doctors didn’t take out either of my kidneys; they just put the third one in.”

McClure stayed in Montefiore for five days following the surgery, then had to make daily trips to the hospital for 6- or 7-hour stints until doctors were sure his condition had stabilized and his medication regimen was established.

Eventually, those hospital visits were reduced to every other day, then to once a week. Now McClure only has to return for tests every six months.

He praised the Montefiore medical staff for their thoroughness and for continuing to keep tabs on him. The doctors and staff in his follow-up clinic also are supportive, checking to see if he is experiencing any problems, he said.

Seven weeks after the surgery, McClure was healthy enough to resume regular activities, including playing basketball, which he had not been able to do for more than a year.

“It took me about five weeks after that to get myself back into shape to run with the guys,” said the avid hoopster. “It was tough. But you bounce back. And now I’m back to, say, 95 percent. I don’t think I’ll ever be 100 percent. I feel like maybe I’ve lost a step.”

McClure also has “lost” some things from his diet. “I can’t eat grapefruit. It interacts with the medicine. I have to limit caffeine. Tea is out, and I love green tea. You’re asked to drink at least three liters of water a day,” he noted.

And the pills: “I started out taking 43 pills a day. Every day. You have to remember to take them and when to take them.” While he is taking fewer pills these days, he’ll be on medications for the rest of his life, he said.

In his case, high blood pressure is the enemy. “My blood pressure was high and it was affecting my kidneys. The main thing they try to do is reduce your blood pressure, because your kidneys are cleaning the blood,” McClure said. “The more I exercise, and I walk 45 minutes almost every day, the more it comes down. When you do the right things with your body, good things happen. If you don’t, then they won’t.”

That’s the lesson he shares with all who will listen.

“When I said I don’t take a day for granted, I always tell people to take care of your body now. Because, even though I’m smiling, I went through something very tough. My life is a challenge some days: You have to take pills and you have to do certain things and you have to see the doctor — I’m always getting stuck with needles.”

But by far the worst part of the whole ordeal was the effect on his family, McClure said.

“Your family needs to change: Going back and forth to the doctor, that’s a hardship on your life. For me at one point it was every single day,” he noted.

“If there’s any praise to go out, it goes to my sister, my wife and my children. My kids had to endure all of this. And they had to watch a lot of what I had to go through. I took them to doctors’ appointments. And they’re trying to understand what’s going on: Why is Dad doing all these things? That was probably harder on me than on them. It was hard saying ‘Dad’s strong, but he’s having a down time.’ My older son would ask questions, but he really didn’t understand. They can always look at Mom and say, ‘Mom’s always going to be here no matter what.’ But every single day, when they looked at Dad, they’d wonder, is he okay? They really took it on the chin for a time,” McClure said.

“But my kids were never angry that they couldn’t do certain things other kids could do because their parents were healthy at the time. I want them never to forget how much I appreciate them for that.”

McClure is looking forward to competing in the Transplant Games. “When you can’t do what you truly like to do, you learn what you’re missing,” he said. “In this case I have the opportunity to compete and I’ll try to do this to the best of my ability. I’m not Michael Jordan, but I will play as hard as I can.”

The benefits of competing in the Transplant Games are many, McClure maintained. “The first one, of course, is that it’s exercise,” he said. “Basketball also is like a chess match: You have to think at all times when you’re out there on the court.”

More importantly, he said, the games provide a forum for celebrating the transplant community, with whom he feels a natural kinship. “There are people who have had transplants but are not able to do these things. I’m appreciative of those things that I can do. I’ve been given this gift to be able to perform a certain way, so why not use it?” he said.

“But I also feel for people who have had a tougher situation. I’m competing for them, too. It’s for those people who didn’t make it, who didn’t survive. There are donors who don’t make it and don’t have the opportunity to see their loved one survive,” McClure said. “I’ve been given a second chance at life. And you can appreciate having those extra days.”

McClure enjoys telling his story to prospective transplant recipients and donors. “Just go in and have faith. What happens, happens. You can make this a bad experience or your best experience, because instead of having one life in turmoil you can have two happy lives,” he advises. “I’m passionate about this. It’s a miracle, it really is. Now I have the opportunity to live a full life. Is it going to be a life full of roses and all that good stuff? No, it’s not that type of life,” given his medication and exercise regimen and having to watch his diet closely. “I don’t do it just for me. When I look at this photograph of my kids and see their smiles, it’s really hard not to press on,” he said.

“I sometimes wonder myself how I was able to do this and not be afraid,” McClure said, noting that prayer was the key factor in conquering any fears. “I prayed a lot about this. Before we went in [for the transplant] our pastor came in and prayed and some mentors came in and prayed with us. It’s one of those times, where if there was ever a moment of faith where I fell into the zone, where I truly believed, that was the moment.

“But everything came into place, even the job. We had a lot of help, like with daycare and getting the kids to school. People didn’t even charge me, they looked into their hearts and helped when they could. I really had all the support that I needed,” McClure said.

He added that something occurred to him around the time of the surgery: “I started to think about what would I do afterwards. It was like: We gave you a kidney, so what are you going to do with your life afterwards? So I have to move forward, and as I’m moving forward I want to acknowledge the people who say, ‘You can do this’ or those who ask, ‘You’ve accomplished this, how have you done this?’ I’m going to have questions for somebody and somebody is going to have questions for me. You help each other through it. It goes in a circle, a circle of life.”

—Peter Hart

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