Franklin resident celebrates new lease on life at Transplant Games

Twice a year for the past six years, Jeannine McKinney writes a letter to the parents of a boy she never knew.

All McKinney knows is that the family lives — or maybe lived — in Ohio, and the boy was 12.

No name. No address.

And, to date, no reply.

In June 2011, McKinney, a Franklin resident diagnosed with Caroli disease, received a liver, pancreas, small intestine and stomach transplant, organs previously belonging to a boy who, sadly, had passed away.

Caroli disease is an inherited genetic condition that causes the bile ducts in the liver to be wider than normal.

It is considered rare, affecting about one in 1,000,000 people.

Over a decade has passed since the surgery that extended McKinney’s life was conducted, yet she continues to give back to the organ donation cause.

As such, she is in San Diego for the 2022 Transplant Games of America, an event taking place inside the city’s convention center through Wednesday.

“It’s about giving back and honoring my donor,” said McKinney, whose attempts to reach the boy’s parents start with the Indiana Donor Network, which then sends her messages to the Ohio Donor Network, which in turn forwards it to the boy’s family.

“The things he could have done, I’m doing them for him. In honor of him.”

McKinney is part of Team Indiana, 18 people strong. She will compete in singles and doubles bowling and darts.

“I’m about average,” McKinney said, laughing, when asked about her bowling skills. “But I’m not doing it for the competition.”

Every ball she rolls doubles as an expression of genuine, heartfelt gratitude for the boy she’ll never meet.

The Transplant Games, promoted as the Olympics for transplant recipients and the families of organ donors, is held every two years, drawing thousands to compete in various athletic or recreational events.

In Olympics-style fashion, gold, silver and bronze medals are handed out to the top three finishers in each event.

The Transplant Games are expected to include more than 40 teams from the United States, as well some international representation. Indiana has been represented by a team since 1990.

McKinney’s journey to the West Coast started in 1999.

“I was diagnosed with Caroli disease when I was pregnant with my youngest son,” she said. “It wasn’t really that bad at first, but about a year after my son was born (Nov. 17, 1999), I had surgery where they removed half of my liver.

“Then I was OK for a couple of years. But then I started having really bad gallstone flare-ups, and then it just started getting worse.”

In 2009, McKinney was informed she needed a new liver, pancreas and small intestine.

McKinney’s surgery at the IU Health and Medical Center in Indianapolis required her to remain in the hospital for three weeks of recovery.

She battled intestinal rejection for the first year, but her health is now good as she enjoys life with her husband Scott, their sons, Justin and Jacob, and four grandchildren ranging in age from 1 to 8.

Nothing is taken for granted.

At least once a month, McKinney drives to the Indiana Donor Network in Indianapolis, volunteering to stuff envelopes or whatever is needed to contribute to the network’s aftercare program.

“I’m just grateful every morning that I’m able to wake up, do everyday things and just be here,” McKinney said. “Without (transplants), I wouldn’t have known my grandchildren. I wouldn’t have been able to see my kids grow up and have their own families.”