marathon runner

For most of her life Yvette Matthews enjoyed good health to the point that she didn’t know what feeling very sick was like. Genetics can contribute to such good fortune, but we suspect her regular involvement in a variety of sports since youth, including playing semi-pro volleyball as an adult, was a major factor.

That all changed in 1998 when a regular medical exam revealed elevated liver enzyme levels. Yvette felt fine and assumed it would go away, but after more tests in 2001 her doctors confirmed she would need a liver transplant within the next ten years to save her life. Being the eternal optimist, she persisted to believe she was not that sick until fatigue set in and fluid gathered in her abdomen in 2011.

Knowing her body had to be strong enough to accept the organ, she preemptively started working out with a trainer. Yvette is convinced this helped sustain her as a transplant candidate beyond the first prognosis.

A donor was finally found and she received a new liver in 2013. The now-retired computer technician was apprehensive at first about returning to normal activity, which is common among transplant recipients. But she was determined to get past fear and start a new chapter in her active life. The day she came home from the hospital she took a short walk, and then added to her distance each day. After a few months she gained the confidence to step up her activity level.

Yvette knew the next move when her doctor suggested she compete in the 2014 Transplant Games of America in Houston. In the following interview, she says she “trained like a fiend” for Cycling, track and field and the 5K Road Race with hopes to win at least one medal. She went home with nine! She has since competed and added to her medal count in two more Transplant Games, and she was thrilled to travel to two World Transplant Games where she has collected seven medals and set two records. She then qualified at the North Carolina Senior Games to earn a trip in 2019 to the National Senior Games in Albuquerque to compete in Power Walk and Long Jump. After experiencing the positive atmosphere and camaraderie, this survivor is now considering whether to dust off her ball skills and add Beach Volleyball to the sport list for the 2022 National Senior Games presented by Humana coming to Greater Fort Lauderdale.

Yvette Matthews is yet another example of how Senior Games athletes persevere through life’s challenges and fears to pursue active lifestyles. They do it by setting goals, training and competing in a positive social environment that feeds their souls. Whether you play sports or not, Yvette and others still advise you to be more active and engaged in life to really reap the benefits of aging well. That is what we call your Personal Best. They are achieving theirs, and you can too!

Yvette, we are happy that you are doing so well now. Before talking about your transplant, tell us about growing up. Did you play sports?

I was always pretty active. When I was in elementary school they used to have the Presidents Fitness Challenge, you know, a day where you did your running, sit ups, long jumps, and stuff like that. I can remember having so much fun but I never went to a school that had a track team. We had hockey, field hockey, basketball, tennis, and lacrosse but no track and field. So I played most of those but I was never able to pursue track.

In the summer I played softball that the rec department put on. My parents always came to all of my softball games and my basketball games. Both of them graduated from Morgan State (Morgan College at the time) and my dad got a full scholarship to play football.

In college I played basketball and lacrosse at UMBC [University of Maryland, Baltimore County] and after school I became a computer technician fixing hardware. I was one of the few females that were even working in that career. I retired in 2012 when I got too sick to go to work.

Did you have time for sports during your working life?

I played flag football for a couple of years, and then I found volleyball. There was this newspaper called Free University with all these classes, and you could pick out these different sports that you wanted to learn. They even had a class on skydiving that I wanted to take. I asked this woman at work if she wanted to go to the class with me. She said she would go to the class on skydiving if I would go to the class on volleyball with her.

So that was how I got started playing volleyball with the Maryland Volleyball Club in the 1980s. I continued to play whenever tournaments or anything came up. We played in the six on six league all winter and we played doubles in the summer. I even played some tournaments as a semi-pro.

So you had a healthy, active life. When did you find out you needed a transplant?

It was after I moved to Colorado in 1997. I went to my new doctor for my annual physical in 1998 and my liver enzymes came back elevated. I felt fine, and I had no symptoms, so I literally ignored it. I was 100% sure the doctors were wrong.

My primary care doctor did tests for a year and couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my liver. He sent me to a hepatologist who ran numerous tests and could not find out what was wrong with me. The only other test left was called an ERCP, and it is done by inserting a camera down my throat allowing the doctor to look at my liver. My doctor told me that I had a rare liver disease called Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis – PSC for short. He then said that there was no cure for this disease except a liver transplant, and that I would die within ten years if I didn’t get the transplant.

This was in January of 2001, so when January of 2011 came, and I was still alive, I was very thankful. I was put on the transplant list in August of 2006 and received a liver transplant on February 4, 2013.

Smiling and thankful the day after receiving her liver donation.

What were your thoughts after your diagnosis?

I could never remember feeling sick before, so I kind of put it in the back of my mind. I really wasn’t on board that I was actually a sick person until about 2009 or 2010 when I started to feel really sluggish. The fatigue continued to increase, and I started to develop fluid in my abdomen, which needed to be drained every week. I was just super tired. I didn’t realize until after my transplant just how tired I really was. I started to more actively look for a live donor. A donor needs to be relatively the same height and weight, and I started asking people that looked right because I was getting sicker and sicker.

They also told me that they will send you home if you are too sick when they find a liver that has matched you. So I actually hired a trainer and started working out in the gym to make sure that I wasn’t too sick to get it.

You were so smart to up your fitness level before the transplant.

I think it made a big difference. I do know a lot of people who have gotten liver transplants who are wary about doing anything after the transplant. They will sit around and say they are afraid. I do know people, to this day, who are overweight because they don’t want to do anything. There are people who have had to go back and get a second transplant. I don’t know if that has anything to do with them being not active, but it couldn’t have helped.

I remember the day after I got home, I walked up to the corner and back. I was exhausted but I did it twice every day and I added another block every day, going across the corner or across the street and back home. At the end of the street there was this hill, and every now and then a friend of mine would be on his way home and see me and say ‘Do you need a ride home?’ and I would say, ‘No, I’m gonna make it.’

Celebrating Gold at 2019 World Transplant Games with friends from Canada and South Africa.

Did you know who donor was?

It came through the system. I still don’t know who my donor is. I wrote letters to my donor’s family for about five years, but I never heard back from them. I’ve been thinking lately about writing to them again. I think that sometimes it just takes time for people to get over stuff.

Did you think at the time you could compete in sports again?

No. I thought I would get my transplant, be alive, and that would be about it. I assumed that was the way it was. A few months after my transplant, I attended my niece’s wedding in Baltimore. That’s when I started believing that I could do more things and I started working out again.

I think my doctor told me about the Transplant Games of America. I decided to keep my trainer and really get in shape because I was going to do the 5K/10K bike race, seven track and field events, and also the 5K run. I would bike three times a week. The thing was, I was afraid that I was going to come home with zero medals so I trained like a fiend to make sure I got at least one medal. That was my greatest fear and it got me in really good shape.

In the summer of 2014, I competed at the games in Houston and won nine medals. I was so happy, excited, and motivated! Since then, I have competed in two more Transplant Games of America and one World Transplant Games.

What track and field events did you compete in?

I did the 100, 200, 800, shot put, discus, long jump, and high jump. The games helped me accomplish a childhood dream of track and field because it was not something I was able to do. It took me until I was a senior to do it, but I was like, “Man this is cool!”

The Transplant Games are special for you, and now Senior Games has become part of your sports routine.

Yes, when I moved to North Carolina I started competing in the Durham Senior Games in 2017. I competed in track and field events and table tennis. I competed in The North Carolina Senior Games in 2017 and 2018. On a cold rainy day in November of 2018, I came in 2nd in long jump so I qualified for The 2019 National Senior Games in long jump and the 1500m race walk.

Personally, getting back into competition makes me feel alive. It has always been a part of me, and it was missing for a while.

Do you think you will ever go back to Volleyball in Senior Games competition?

When I moved to Colorado, I kind of stopped playing. But I saw that National Senior Games is offering beach volleyball in Fort Lauderdale next year. That’s interesting. I know all of my old partners are old enough to participate. When I was in Albuquerque, I walked over to the volleyball courts just to see if I saw anyone I knew, and I saw tons of people from two of the old teams that I used to play with in the senior leagues in Maryland. That got me thinking.

Yvette has been featured in a Colorado organ donor campaign on posters and billboards. The example of her fearless return to her normal was a reason she was selected.

What did you do to stay active during pandemic?

Back in March I said ‘This is not that big of a deal. I spent a month in the hospital not able to go outside, so if all I have to do is stay home for a month, I can do that easily.’ Well, of course I had no idea it was going to be this long. Having gone through what I have been, as close to death as I was, every day is a blessing to me.

I would go out walking every day. I have my Fitbit and I do 10,000 steps minimum every day. To me, I was happy just being able to get up and go outside. This has not really bothered me at all like it has other people. I remember the times where I could barely get out of bed and get downstairs to make a meal and try to get outside to do a little bit of a walk. So this is nothing to me.

It’s always important to keep moving.

I know a lot of people who are very active, and I know a lot of people who are not. The people who are active seem to be happier, so I think it really does make a difference if you are an active adult. That even goes for some of my friends who have not had a transplant. Especially during the pandemic, they just don’t know what to do. They can’t go out to eat or do the things they normally do and they are just really having a hard time.

What do you tell other people about keeping fit at this age?

People say to me “You know, you are so thin” and “How do you stay so thin?” I tell them that I walk 10,000 steps every day and I watch what I eat. My friend told me a cake shop was selling cakes buy one, get one free. She said she had to buy both and then ate both. [Laugh] I said, ‘Are you serious? If I were to buy a whole cake, I would divide it up into single servings and put them in individual baggies in the freezer. Someone else told me ‘I have a bag of this trail mix every day so I know I am eating healthy.’ I looked at the bag and told her ‘This says it is three servings so if you are eating a whole bag, you are overeating.’ She said she had never noticed the serving size so I pointed out that she really needs to be looking at those kind of things. It will tell you how much you should eat.

I tell people things like that, but usually nobody pays attention. People think they are healthy because they are working super hard or dieting but it needs to be based on eating a balanced diet and exercising.

Well, Yvette, people have to take that step themselves. You had to fight your way back to get to your own normal!

I’m happy to be alive and healthy enough to be able to compete with my peers. Having a liver transplant was the beginning of a new chapter in my life.

Yvette Matthews, 67, Durham, North Carolina

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