On June 6, 2006, Al Milek walked out of the gym after a workout and crumpled to the ground. He had had a massive heart attack - so bad that, as he would later learn, only a heart transplant would save his life. He was 61 years old.
He turned to the Duke Heart Center and soon received a new heart and a new lease on life.
"As I was recovering from my transplant surgery, Milek says, "I saw news coverage from the Transplant Games." The Transplant Games of America are Olympic-style events for transplant recipients and living donors. They have been held every two years since 1990. "I said, 'I'm going,'" Milek says.
Milek competed in the 2008 games - swimming - and again in 2010. But athletic competition is only part of the draw. "There are ceremonies involving donor families," Milek says. "We treat them so gratefully, they are the reasons we are still alive. Just being there is part of a big hug fest."
Milek is now the North Carolina team manager. Last year, four transplant recipients - all Duke patients, including kidney and heart recipients - competed. Fifteen transplant recipients so far are planning to compete in the North Carolina team in the 2014 games.
Although Milek has savored every experience at the games, perhaps nothing will compare to his first competition two years after his transplant. "I did the 500-yard swim on the last day of the event, and I was the last one out of the pool," he recalls. "I swam a steady pace, but a lot slower than everyone else, yet everyone was around the pool yelling, "'Go, Al!' I got out of the pool and gave my wife a super hug. It was final. I was that close to death, and I conquered it."