The William Tennent High School senior won a bronze medal in bowling, silvers in golf and table tennis, and a gold in the softball throw. Messatzzia has won 12 medals in three Olympics. The thrill of winning is starting to feel familiar to Messatzzia, who as a child spent many Saturdays on the sidelines.
"I really didn't have a lot of energy before the transplant," Messatzzia said. "I could play, but I got tired. I'd have to come in and take a nap. I don't think I would have had the energy then to even walk 18 holes like I do now."
Messatzzia's success isn't extraordinary. It's typical of about 80 percent of those who receive transplants, according to the Delaware Valley Transplant Program, which procures and distributes donor organs.
"The games are an opportunity to show the public that transplants are successful. It's good public relations for transplantations," said Kevin Sparkman, spokesman for the transplant program.
New anti-rejection drugs enabled many of the athletes to participate. Louis Riley, a nephrologist at Temple University Hospital, said the steroids patients counted on before the mid-1980s left muscles too weak for most athletic activities. Today's drugs, although not without side effects, have increased survival and quality of life for organ recipients.
Olympics organizers hope that seeing healthy transplant patients will encourage more people to sign donor cards and make their wishes known to their
families. Sparkman believes the games were responsible for an increase in area organ donors - from 149 in 1989 to 182 when the Olympics were organized in 1990. The number of donors increased slightly to 210 in 1992, but then declined to 205 in 1993.
Last year, about 125 people in the Philadelphia area died waiting for a donor organ. Sparkman said 1,700 people are waiting for transplants at 12 area hospitals. He noted that the success of transplants has increased demand and swelled waiting lists.
Sparkman said less than half of those who could donate organs do. That, he said, is an obstacle the transplant program and the National Kidney Foundation hope to overcome through such projects as the Olympics.
"There are a lot of misconceptions out there about donating organs," said Kate Sullivan, spokeswoman for the National Kidney Foundation of the Delaware Valley Inc.
"There's a big wall of ignorance that needs to be worn down, and we can't take a bulldozer and break it down," she said.
Sullivan stressed that most religious groups support organ and tissue donation. And, she noted, organ donations are considered only after every effort is made to save a patient's life.
Al Berg, 61, of Northampton Township, also participated in the games in Atlanta. He has made it his mission to educate the public about organ donation. He calls it payback for the good turn that led to his heart transplant in 1992. He fought a homeowners' association in court for the right to advertise the transplant program's telephone number on his sedan.
An avid golfer, Berg participated for the camaraderie rather than the competition. "You're there with everyone that's like you. We all went from close to death to living again," Berg said. "It was like we were all old friends."
To John Kulishoff, 36, of Middletown Township, the games' purpose was more personal. In 1986, Kulishoff's enlarged heart was replaced with a healthy organ donated by the family of a 22-year-old man. Before the transplant, Kulishoff couldn't muster the breath to scale a staircase. Now, he bicycles 20 miles a day.
Kulishoff was scheduled to ride in the Olympics, but a collarbone break in July forced him out of the bicycling. He did compete in tennis, where the bone
break interfered only with his serving.
"For me, the harder the goal the better, because once you achieve it, it's more gratifying," Kulishoff said. "One reason I do this is to show people there's no reason why I can't."