ELYRIA — Just two years after receiving a liver transplant, Edward Gaitan was representing Team Ohio in the Transplant Games of America this summer in Salt Lake City, bringing home a silver and a bronze.
Of course he was.
This is a man who, within three days of his transplant, was down in the hospital exercise room on a bicycle.
Gaitan, 55, of Elyria, is a man who isn’t going to give up — not on living, and certainly not on his message.
A routine physical for his job as a federal agent with the Department of Homeland Security in 2008 revealed elevated enzyme levels. Gaitan followed up with his doctor and was scheduled for gallbladder surgery. That surgery revealed scar tissue on his liver.
As the years went on, he followed up with his doctor regularly, and his enzyme levels continued to increase. His blood count began going down. When he was admitted to the hospital for food poisoning, he was diagnosed with non-alcoholic cirrhosis. He later was diagnosed with metabolic syndrome.
In 2014, after 32 years, Gaitan was forced to retire as a federal agent due to his medical issues.
“His liver was enlarged,” said Gaitan’s wife, Valerie Gaitan. “His spleen was enlarged. One altercation could have been deadly.”
A year later, the Gaitans went to the Cleveland Clinic for a second opinion.
“Right away, within the second visit, the doctor said, ‘You are young. You are strong, and besides having a bad liver, you’re a good candidate for a transplant,’” Gaitan recalled.
His case went to the transplant evaluation committee, and he was placed on the wait list. Within six weeks, he received the call that he was the standby recipient for a new liver.
“I was fortunate I didn’t have to go through what other people have to go through with years of treatment and waiting,” he said. “I was truly, truly blessed.”
Gaitan spent seven days in the hospital after his transplant, including 48 hours in the intensive care unit. But as soon as he was transferred to the main floor, he quickly found that exercise room.
Meanwhile, Valerie Gaitan, 52, made a discovery of her own.
In 2016, the Transplant Games of America were in Cleveland — the same week Gaitan had his transplant.
“I went down to the elevator, and I met these people from St. Louis, who all had on the same T-shirt,” Valerie Gaitan said. “I asked what it was all about, and I looked some things up online.”
When she went in to work at the airport after the closing ceremonies, she saw more people from different states, wearing these shirts and pins.
“I met people from Houston and Southern California — from all over — and they all had medals and pins from different states,” she said.
Participants collect and trade the pins with one another, and after telling people about her husband, they started giving pins to Valerie Gaitan.
When she told her husband about her encounters, they knew it was something they would do.
After all, the Gaitans are avid volunteers in the community.
Gaitan is the PTO president for Prospect Elementary School and Valerie Gaitan is the PTO treasurer. Both volunteer with Honor Flight, an organization dedicated to taking veterans to Washington, D.C., to see its war memorials, and Valerie Gaitan is secretary of the board for Honor Flight Cleveland. They volunteer with the Cleveland Clinic talking to recipients and caregivers about what they can expect during the transplant process.
“Just two years out, I don’t know that people get that involved that quickly,” Gaitan said of his volunteer work with the Cleveland Clinic. “I got involved because I got that second chance, and I want to help others get it, too. If we can get more people involved and get more people to become donors, one day there won’t be a wait list.”
Participating in the Transplant Games was another way to raise awareness.
“It was an unbelievable time,” Gaitan said. “To meet all of these people who have been through the exact same thing. I’m not the type of individual who gives up. As soon as she told me (about the Transplant Games), I said we were going to make every single one we can until we can’t do it anymore.”
Gaitan participated in a number of events — many of which he had never done before — shot put, volleyball, pickle ball, Texas Hold ‘Em and cycling.
He won the silver medal for shot put, throwing 39¼ feet.
“The recipient who beat me played football in the Canadian league, so I felt pretty good about how I did,” Gaitan said.
He also won a bronze medal for Texas Hold ‘Em, playing six and a half hours straight.
“It was exhausting,” Gaitan said. “It doesn’t seem like much, but it really was.”
An active man who enjoys hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, running and working out, Gaitan tries to do all of the activities he did before his transplant. He may be a little slower, but he still tries.
“We made the Guiness Book of World Records for beating the United Kingdom’s record for the most recipients in one place at one time,” Gaitan said. “It was an honor to do that. It was an honor to be a part of so many people who never give up on life.”
It was an amazing experience for Valerie Gaitan as well.
“Just knowing he’s in an environment with a bunch of other people who have received a transplant, and they are 20 years out or 35 years out,” Valerie Gaitan said. “Once you know people have had these transplants and how long they last, you can see your life becoming whole again.”
So motivated and inspired by the experience, Gaitan plans to participate in the games in 2020 in the Meadowlands, New Jersey, and also in the International Games in Houston in 2021. He wants to encourage everyone to donate life.
The Gaitans are the parents of Justin Gaitan, 32; Jordan Gaitan, 29; Rachel Malloy, 19; and Austen Gaitan, 10.