Liver transplant recipient among 3,000 Waco Ironman competitors

Jeff Wallburn (left) owes his life to a teenage organ donor named John. (Courtesy photos)
Jeff Wallburn (left) owes his life to a teenage organ donor named John. (Courtesy photos)(KWTX)
Published: Oct. 26, 2018 at 4:08 PM CDT
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A liver transplant recipient who’s among the 3,000 athletes in town for this weekend’s Bicycle World Ironman Waco 70.3 Triathlon is competing in honor of the teenage organ donor who saved his life.

"I was diagnosed with liver failure in 2007 and received my organ transplant in February of 2008," said Jeff Wallburn of Justin.

"I shed a tear or two along the way learning my fate and then understanding what I needed to do to try and survive.'

The donor who saved Jeff's life was a 15-year-old boy from Indiana named John who died unexpectedly after a short illness.

His parents decided to donate his organs, which went to four people, including Jeff who was the only one who opted to learn about his donor.

He later met John’s family, including the teenager’s mother.

"She always asks if I'm OK and if the liver is doing good," he said.

"It's like a piece of her son is in me and she feels that connection."

After the transplant, Jeff began exercising to try and stay healthy but then he realized he could use his energy for something much greater than a medal.

"When I first started competing or participating in triathlons it was more about just trying to stay healthy for me and then once I did it for a couple of years I was like 'I need to have a purpose for doing this.’"

So now Jeff runs, bikes and swims in honor of John.

On the back of the jersey he wears are the words "Thanks John for my second chance."

Jeff says competitors often asks him what it means and it gives him the opportunity to talk about the importance of becoming an organ donor.

"It's a feeling of endearment and honor, like every day that I think about him or like participating in these distance events that I do, I just try to pay a little bit of honor and respect to him and his family for allowing their son to live in me and me to have a second chance."

Several Waco donor and organ recipient families are expected to line the route to cheer Jeff on Sunday.

He has been a mentor to other liver transplant recipients and frequently volunteers with LifeGift, his local organ procurement organization, and Donate Life Texas, the state registry for organ donation in Texas.

"I race because I can," Jeff said. "Because I've been given this tremendous gift. And because I am forever grateful."

"There are so many in need of organ transplants. I've learned to appreciate every moment of life and live it to the fullest."