Running for life
Liver transplant fails to keep Melbourne athlete from crossing the finish line
When it comes to encouraging optimism and a positive attitude in the face of adversity or misfortune, the proverbial phrase, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” is one Tom Stokes knows only too well.
After enduring a liver transplant five years ago, the 73-year-old Melbourne resident, retired nurse and avid runner has lived by this age-old adage.
His dedication to living and thriving with a transplanted liver has been remarkable.
His journey has not only been one of perseverance and positivity, but has afforded him the opportunity to honor the gift of life and promote awareness for the importance of organ donation.
An intermittent runner since he was in his late 20s, it was not until he was in his 40s that he became interested in running as a way to stay fit.
“It was a sort of mid-life crisis, I suppose,” he explained.
Many of his earliest dates with his wife of 23 years, Deb, were spent running together.
“It was simply a part of our lifestyle, and continues to be a part of who we were and are.”
As travel nurses, the couple always made time to run. Though the weather and terrain conditions often changed from place to place, it was their motivation that kept them on a consistent track.
Then, in 1990, Stokes was diagnosed with hepatitis C.
“I believe it was likely from a work-related exposure,” Stokes said. “I was treated with the available programs without a complete cure.”
Fast forward to 2005 when tests found he still had an active viral load.
“It was during this time Deb was still in graduate school and I was the sole breadwinner,” he recalled. “Making time for running was often difficult, but I knew it was important for me.
“The treatment that led to a complete cure lasted 44 weeks. Just after I was given a green light and Deb had completed her graduate studies, we both became more active runners.”
It was during a routine screening in 2015, that an ultrasound showed a suspicious mass on his liver.
“It was then my GI doctor told me that the tumor, coupled with my already damaged liver from the hep C meant
that a transplant was the only long term treatment.”
As his transplant process ground on, he received two ablations to destroy the tumor, but just six months later two more small tumors showed up. After radiation, and some generalized weakness, Stokes continued running races and triathlons as his go-to activities to maintain his health.
On May 11, 2017, he was placed on an active transplant list.
He and Deb decided that what was going to happen would result in a long recovery and she would be his caregiver. She chose to make a quick trip to Idaho to visit her family, while they patiently waited for a call.
“On July 8, 2017, I packed a bag and drove to Clermont to participate in a sprint distance triathlon,” he said. “It was around 10 p.m. that evening I received a call from the Orlando Transplant Institute and a matching liver had been found.
“I hung up and immediately dialed Deb. Thankfully she was able to book a red eye flight back to Orlando as the transplant was scheduled to take place at noon on Monday, July 9, the next day.”
ON ROAD TO RECOVERY
Two days later, Stokes was moved to the transplant recovery floor and survived the initial impediments, little sleep, noise, pain and all that goes with surgery.
On July 12, Stokes decided to try and break a record for the number of laps around the transplant floor in 24 hours. Eight laps equaled a mile and the record was 26 laps.
“By the end of the day, with Deb’s help, I had completed 40 laps, 5 miles, and I was told it was, indeed, a new record,” he said.
The next day, Stokes took on his next challenge — a trip to the first floor cafe and then a walk around the lake.
“I chose to take the stairs, determined to climb up 12 floors, back to my floor,” he said. “By the time I reached floor six, I was too winded to continue and rode the elevator back.”
It was then he began to accept that he was going to be running a marathon, not a sprint — at least for a few days.
He was discharged July 14 and began his power walks with a plan to push, rest, eat and repeat. Rapid improvement in his daily routine and pace proved he was on the comeback trail and just six weeks after his transplant, Stokes ran the Tailgate 2 Miler in Viera.
Nearly a year had passed when, in March 2018, he developed a stricture, which is a narrowing in the bile duct, resulting in a rash and an abnormal elevation of liver enzymes. After having stents placed in the duct, his symptoms disappeared. After six months, the stents were removed and he has had no issues since.
“I remember over that weekend I ran the Excalibur 10 Miler while my family was in town, prior to my hospital visit that Monday, and I still don’t think the medical team knew I had competed in that race prior to the procedure,” he said.
In the past five years, Stokes has completed more than 170 structured events.
During 2018, a time he refers to as his comeback year, he completed a half iron triathlon, the Salt Lake City Transplant Games of America, a Gulf Coast Cycle Fest 100 mile ride, a 3.75 mile Bridge to Bridge swim and one of his favorite hometown events, the annual Space Coast Marathon, along with several other local events.
The following year, he and Deb traveled to Newcastle, England, where they met many transplant recipients at a World Transplant Games event, all whom had their own inspiring stories. He returned with three gold medals in a 5k road race, a 1,500-meter race and a 400-meter race.
In 2021, he completed five obstacle course races, four of which are known as the Spartan Trifecta. This entailed a variety of skills — and left him even more confident that he could face any challenge.
After COVID cancellations in 2020 and early 2021, the TGA games returned in 2022 and the couple was ready to get back to traveling.
“My goal was to perform at a higher level than I had accomplished in 2018,” Stokes explained.
After eight events at the San Diego games, he had first place medals in the 5k road race, the 1,500-, 800- and 400-meter events; a second place in the 500-yard freestyle swimming race; and a third in the 200 individual medley.
“My husband, Tom, is the most driven, determined and, I dare say, stubborn individual I know,” Deb Stokes said. “I continue to ask myself how he is now able to accomplish all he has during these last five years.”
Stokes plans to travel to Perth, Australia, to the WTG next year. He has also committed to three marathons.
“My goal is to continue to train, compete and most of all enjoy the precious gift of life,” he said.
“I encourage everyone to learn more about the importance of organ donation, the greatest gift one can ever give.”
Fact and Figures
• More than 105,800 men, women and children are on a national transplant waiting list.
• 17 people die daily waiting for a donor.
• Every donor can save up to eight lives with their organs, and enhance the lives of 75 others.
• 40,000 plus transplants were performed in 2021.
• Visit www.organdonor.gov/signup or www.donatelife.net to find out how
you can give the gift of life.
Sue DeWerff Panzarino
Sue is an avid surfer, shark attack survivor and storyteller who loves to write about the wonderful people and great organizations on the Space Coast.