Only three years after his heart transplant surgery, Bill Soloway earned four medals at the 2018 Transplant Games in Salt Lake City
By Samantha Bambino
If you told Bill Soloway three years ago he would be winning a gold medal someday, he would have shaken his head in disbelief. Especially after his heart transplant surgery.
But earlier this summer, that’s just what this local survivor did.
From Aug. 2–7, the Yardley resident traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah, with the 200-member Team Philadelphia for the 2018 Transplant Games, a biennial celebration of life featuring athletes who are living donors, organ transplant recipients, and loved ones of late donors.
In the Olympic-style competition, Soloway not only took home the gold in men’s singles badminton, but also three bronze medals in cycling, men’s doubles badminton and men’s pickleball. For Soloway, who went home empty-handed during his first Transplant Games in 2016, this was a massive achievement for himself, as well as his donor’s family.
“Everything I do in the Transplant Games, I do for them,” he said.
Soloway’s journey to heart health has been 20 years in the making. In 1996, after collapsing in the middle of the Orlando International Airport, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure — the same condition his brother died from at only 27. Two years prior, his mother also passed away from heart issues.
For some time, Soloway knew he would need a transplant to break the family curse. But it wasn’t until he enrolled in the Gift of Life Donor Program that he was able to do so. The nonprofit, federally-designated organ procurement organization, which works in partnership with hospitals and healthcare systems, has coordinated more than 46,000 life-saving organs for transplant and approximately 1 million tissue transplants since its founding in 1974.
According to Soloway, the process was very straightforward. Without disclosing any personal information that would reveal his identity, Soloway had to write a letter chronicling his health story and what the transplant would mean to him. Gift of Life then sent the letter to a prospective donor family, who had the option of rejecting it or sending a note back. Luckily for Soloway, they chose the latter.
For a little more than a year, Soloway and the family, who resides in the western half of Pennsylvania, exchanged letters — something Gift of Life requires to ensure both parties are confident in their decision to move forward.
In June 2015, Soloway underwent a successful heart transplant surgery and by 2016, he was eager to give his first Transplant Games a shot. Soloway went into the experience in Cleveland, Ohio, with high expectations. He wanted to win. In retrospect, he admitted the pressure he put on himself was probably too high for where he was at in the recovery process.
“I was still getting used to my heart and my heart wasn’t used to my body,” he said.
Soloway left Ohio with no medals to his name, but rather a changed mindset. After meeting countless new people and hearing their heartwarming stories, it was OK that he didn’t win. Just taking in the powerful experience of the Transplant Games was a victory in itself.
This year, Soloway traveled to Utah with that same perspective of simply enjoying every moment as it came. Maybe it was a clear head, or maybe it was those two additional years of getting used to his new heart. Either way, Soloway took home an unprecedented four medals. As a lifelong avid cyclist, earning the bronze in cycling was a particularly proud moment.
“There is life after transplant,” he said. “I never dreamt I would be back biking.”
In addition to Soloway’s four achievements, Team Philadelphia as a whole brought home an impressive 150 medals — 69 gold, 43 silver and 38 bronze — for track and field, swimming, basketball and other sports.
“It is so inspiring to see hundreds of people from our area and thousands from across the country come together to celebrate the success of organ donation and transplantation,” said Howard M. Nathan, president and CEO of the Gift of Life Donor Program. “There are so many incredible stories, and every one of those stories started the same way — with someone who selflessly said ‘yes’ to donation. I am so grateful to our community for its outstanding record of generosity in donation, and so proud of the many athletes who participated this year.”
As Soloway begins preparing for the 2020 Transplant Games, which are slated to take place in The Meadowlands, New Jersey, he will continue his work at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, where he shares his story with transplant patients before and after their surgeries.
In his community, Soloway also serves as an advocate for organ donation. Referencing donatelife.net, he stated how 95 percent of people are in favor of organ donation, but only 56 percent are registered. According to Soloway, it only takes 20 seconds to sign up online. One organ donor can save the lives of up to eight people, while a tissue donor can enhance the lives of more than 75 others.
More information can be found at donors1.org. ••
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com