Shelby Gielen had two liver transplants and continues to swim competitively. (CONTRIBUTED)

Maple Ridge double-transplant swimmer takes home gold medals

Shelby Gielen was given 12 hours to live at age 14, before she received her first liver transplant.

It was a gift that saved her life, but one that had a definite time limit on it.

And now Shelby Gielen is wondering again, if she’ll need another.

Gielen, who just won two gold and silver medals at the Canadian Transplant Games at UBC last week, received her first liver transplant when she was 14.

It was an emergency surgery and she was given less than 12 hours to live. Within that time a donor match was found and at that young age, she recovered quickly.

Gielen learned soon after that she had contracted Hepatitis B from the donor liver and was given five years to live. But she survived with the first transplant for more than 13 years. However, after that time she learned once again that her liver was about to fail and that she had just three months to live.

“Planned my funeral, sold my car, wrote notes for my siblings, and got my estate plan. It was crazy doing that at age 27.”

A month before what Gielen deemed her ‘expiry date,’ she received a call from the Canadian Liver Foundation who wanted to try an experimental procedure for another liver transplant. She had the procedure and her body accepted the second liver.

“Organs are so hard to come by, there’s a process to get on the waitlist, certain criteria. You get on the waitlist when you’re sick enough,” said Gielen.

Gielen said she suspects she will need a third liver transplant. Despite her intuitions of declining health, Gielen continues to push herself to live her best life.

She has continued swimming competitively. Post-transplant, Gielen joined the UBC swim team and made nationals within her first year.

“When you’re living with chronic pain, you have to make sure you can find an outlet so you’re not feeling that pain when you’re distracting yourself in a healthy outlet, while doing something for yourself and your body. The human body is not meant to be in that much constant pain.”

A low-impact activity like swimming is perfect Gielan said, and she enjoys the competition.

“I’ve had to learn to tone it down and it’s really, really hard. The biggest struggle is learning to pull back the reins,” said Gielen.

Gielen held back tears as she recalled a race she had this week against a fellow competitor who had a double lung transplant. It’s moments like these with other transplant recipients that motivate Gielen to keep swimming.

“We’re in the locker room comparing scars, medications, asking questions, sharing stories. All of us are blown away with each others’ stories. We are all inspiring.” said Gielen.

Gielen plans on swimming as long as she’s healthy enough to do so.

“I know I’m pushing it and I overdo it, but sometimes it’s worth it because I’m making memories. I don’t know how much longer I may be here, and if I’ll go to another (transplant) games. Some people won’t understand why I push myself just to crash the next day, but it’s because I live with a time limit and I want to make memories.”

Gielen said she has two big goals for the future.

“I’d like to stay alive,” Gielen laughed. “My biggest goal is to increase the donor registry by about 50-100 thousand registers. And to stay alive. It’s pretty simple.”

Those interested in becoming a donor can do so at the online transplant registry.

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