Meet 2024 Team Illinois
Here are some of the athletes who will compete for Team Illinois at the 2022 Donate Life Transplant Games.
Team Manager/kidney recipient
Brian Stiner from Batavia serves as team manager and has competed in multiple sports in eight Transplant Games. Diagnosed with IgA nephropathy as a young adult, Brian soon needed a kidney. His sister became his hero donor on June 22, 2001, at the University of Chicago.
His transplantation has enabled him to continue traveling with his job as an engineer, share in adventures with his family, and compete for Team Illinois in San Diego, where he will be cheered on by extended family. He will play for the Spare Parts basketball team and play team volleyball, darts, Texas Hold-Em, cornhole and pickleball.
TLI Secretary/liver recipient
It’s been more than 30 years since Susan English was a first-year college student. That's the year she became hospitalized with elevated liver enzymes and lost 40 pounds. She recovered, but years later, she was diagnosed with giant cell hepatitis, which had caused some cirrhosis of her liver.
Over the next 20-plus years, Susan battled moderate hepatic encephalopathy, suffered a spontaneous splenic artery aneurysm, endured extended stays in the hospital and rehabilitative care, and sat on the waitlist for a new liver three times. Finally in August 2013, English received her gift of life at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Happy to be returning for her third in-person Transplant Games, she will compete in the same sports that earned her medals four years ago – swimming (she won bronze in the 100m freestyle) and team trivia (gold). Susan also participated in the 2021 Reimagined Games, logging points in swimming, trivia, and the 5K events.
Team Managetr/kidney recipient
The longer Monica Fox from Flossmoor spent on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, the more she learned about organ donation. “I learned that people die everyday waiting for a transplant,” she says. “I didn’t want to be one of them.” So, she became an active advocate for organ donation and the “face of waiting” for many of Gift of Hope’s ad campaigns.
Two days before Thanksgiving in November 2016, Monica received her gift of life at UIC hospital. “I received a directed donation from a friend’s family, and it was a perfect match,” she says. “My recovery was amazingly easy, my labs have been stable, and my advocacy continues with renewed and reinvigorated purpose.”
Monica first participated in the 2018 Transplant Games in Salt Lake City, where she and her dance partner, Vince Shavers, won the bronze medal in ballroom dancing. This year Monica has had a health setback but is looking forward to competing in San Diego with her daughter, Olivia, cheering her on.
Donor family in tribute to son John
Joy and John Beach
Joy and John Beach, of rural Sycamore, did not know that their son, John, had signed the back of his driver’s license to become an organ donor until that fateful night in 2014. John was at a bonfire celebrating his 22nd birthday with friends. Afterwards, he and a friend jumped on their motorcycles for the ride home. John had built his from the ground up. Somewhere along the way, the bikes crashed, and John died.
John saved six people’s lives that night with a donation of skin, tendons, bones, and a cornea.
“John enjoyed dirt biking, 4-wheeling, and driving a tractor. He loved his horse, waterskiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, and fishing,” says Joy. “He was a very creative kid. He could build just about anything just by looking at it. He loved welding and was in the process of going back to school.”
Twice a year, the Beaches sponsor a clean-up event along the stretch of road where the accident occurred.
“His family meant so much to him,” she says. “He was always showing his love and support. He is my hero.”
Donor family in tribute to Lilly's sister, Karina
Lilly Jaramillo and James Svec
My sister, Karina, had a very strong personality with a positive outlook in life. She taught us the meaning of goals and accomplishments. She proved to us that no matter what disability you may have, you can be and do anything you want in life.
Karina passed away on Jan 25,2019. She went to the dentist for a tooth extraction, was put under anesthesia, and had complications. She lost oxygen to the brain, and we had to make the difficult decision to remove her from life support.
She donated both kidneys and her liver at the age of 38 years old. Her number one goal was to make sure you were loved unconditionally by her. Karina loved to travel, to read, and to spend time with family. Her family was everything to her. She never had children of her own, so her nieces and nephews were her world.
Donor family mom in tribute to son, Jaime
Claudia Acevedo and her niece, Erica Aguirre, will travel with Team Illinois representing Gift of Hope to honor Acevedo’s 26-year-old son, Jaime. He passed away on Oct. 12, 2018, and became an organ donor.
“We called him the Cisco Kid,” she says. “He was as loving and caring a person anyone could have ever met. He was kind to everyone he met and could always entertain you with interesting news from around the world.”
As sad as it is to lose a child, she says, Claudia knows that Jaime would have been proud that he was able to make a difference in so many people’s lives.
“He was witty and could make anyone laugh,” she continues. “Jaime had the goofiest crooked smile that would make you smile right back. His heart beats on.”
Donor family mom in tribute to son, Ezra Hill
Andrea Harden will represent Gift of Hope in honor of her 10-year-old son, Ezra Hill, Jr., who died in 2019. “He was my smart, loving, and intelligent son. He was my only child and the bravest and most heroic boy that anyone could get to know,” she says. “I’m proud of Ezra for sharing his gift with each recipient. I know that he would have made the decision to save the lives of others; his heart was just that kind.”
Ezra was in the fourth grade, and he loved his teachers and friends, says Andrea. “He enjoyed doing things like riding his hoverboard, dancing, and playing video games. In fact, playing Fortnite is the reason he was so good at dancing. He would do the orange justice, the floss, and the worm to name a few. Everyone would gather around my son to watch these popular dance moves come to life.”
The family called him EJ for short. “EJ was silly and had the most high-pitched squeaky laugh, and always had a smile on his face,” Andrea says. “EJ loved listening to music in his free time, playing sports like basketball during summer camp, and he became a pretty good wrestler in our small town. He also loved spending time with the little babies and younger kids, making sure that they felt included. Ezra was always happy, and he shared his happiness with the world.”
Donor family in tribute to son, Andrew Hines, Jr.
Andrew and Stacy Hines
Andrew Reed Hines, Jr., was born Dec. 3, 2001, and passed away Nov. 7, 2020.
Andrew was a gentle soul of the Christian faith. From the beginning of his life, he always had a smile on his face; he could light up a room with his smile and laughter. His heart was bigger than life itself with love for family and friends like no other.
Through Andrew's death, he was able to save three lives. One of which was a great gift of his heart and liver. Meeting his recipient was one of the greatest honors. Andrew was loved by so many, along with touching so many lives of others. He was always there to lend a hand to anyone that needed it, whether he had the time or not.
He enjoyed riding bikes, working on cars, fishing, playing checkers with his grandfather, playing video games, loving his dogs and cats, and being outside in the fresh air.
Many people may not have known that Andrew was battling depression, but he continued to put a smile on his face every day, looking to brighter, better days ahead.
Donor family in tribute to Maddie "Maddog"
Cyndi, Frank, and Sam Grobmeier
Cyndi and Frank Grobmeier run the Maddog Strong Foundation in the spirit of their daughter, Maddie “Maddog,” who passed away unexpectedly from an asthma attack the day after her 18th birthday in 2019 and became an organ donor.
“Maddie inspired many by donating her organs and tissues,” Cyndi says, “so that others could live on to do amazing things for the world.”
According to the Grobmeiers, Maddie miraculously walked away from a serious car accident just three months before she died.
“That accident inspired her to sit down and have a conversation with us about organ donation,” Cyndi recalls. Maddie told her parents that if something like that ever happened to her again, and she didn’t make it, to “promise me that you’ll donate my organs so that something good can come from tragedy.”
Now the Grobmeiers are on a mission to help a younger generation understand the importance of organ and tissue donation. They sponsor an annual walk/run at Lincoln-Way High School to raise awareness and funds to support an educational program for high school teachers.
TGA Minority/Diversity Liaison/heart recipient
Nicole Brown is a fighter, having spent the better part of 2018 in the intensive care unit at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn after a virus attacked her transplanted heart, and she suffered a stroke. Doctors there shocked her back to life, not once, but three times. During that time, she had to learn to speak and walk all over again. Now she’s back for her third Transplant Games, feistier than ever.
“I once wondered and because of my few limitations I still wonder if this would be possible again,” she says, “but then HE reminds me he always has a plan.” Brown recently celebrated her 42nd birthday with more appreciation for the gift of life she received on Feb. 2, 2013. The Chicago native was in dire need of a transplant after being diagnosed with endocarditis. Though Brown has never met the family of the daughter who donated a heart on that “wonderfully glorious morning,” she has spoken with them and always has a picture of her donor close by.
“She had a gorgeous smile and angelic face,” she says. “My mission is to do her wondrous spirit justice.”
And so, Nicole spends her free time advocating for donor awareness. Nicole will compete in cornhole and volleyball, all while enthusiastically cheering on her teammates at the Games.
Bob Anthony was just 18 years old when he was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 1966. Over the years he watched as his liver enzymes continued to climb until 1999 when he was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a slow-moving disease of the bile ducts.
“I was told that on average people with PSC need a liver transplant within 11 years,” says the Evanston native. “I wasn't too worried because I was still asymptomatic. I was still active and playing sports, especially basketball, and I was still a full-time firefighter/paramedic.”
By the time he retired in 2010, he had learned more about liver disease and about living donation. And in 2015 as his liver enzymes soared, edema set in, and he was unable to play basketball, he prepared for a transplant. All his children volunteered to donate, but the first one tested – his daughter Vanessa -- was a match. They underwent a successful liver surgery on July 8, 2015, at Northwestern. His daughter returned to work soon after, and though Anthony had a longer recovery, he was back playing the next year for Charley Brown’s Windy City Seniors League and competing in seniors tournaments. Anthony will join the Spare Parts basketball and volleyball teams in San Diego.
Double lung recipient
Nick Di Brizzi, Jr.
Nick Di Brizzi, Jr., a professional actor and motivational speaker now living in California, was born and raised in the Chicago area. He was also born with Cystic Fibrosis and Type-One Diabetes and lived for 14 years with a below 25 percent lung function before having to receive a double lung transplant in 2015 at Stanford Hospital. And as is common for immunosuppressed recipients, Nick needed a second transplant, a kidney, which he had done at Loyola on July 1, 2021. His donor was his brother, Dominic.
Nick has been involved in sports all his life and attributes his health and survival to fitness and sports.
“I am looking forward to the Transplant Games because it is another great opportunity to show people that nothing is impossible,” Nick says. “I have looked death in the eye on two different occasions and have defeated odds that doctors thought were impossible. There is no better way to celebrate these achievements and at the same time raise awareness for the importance of being an organ donor than to participate in the Games. I look forward to the opportunity to represent Team Illinois.”
Nick started the Breathe Like a Boss Foundation to give other Cystic Fibrosis patients and transplant recipients the opportunity to participate in exercise. The Foundation provides grants for exercise programs and equipment to those living in both Illinois and California.
Jerry Taylor knows what it’s like to depend on medication. He was diagnosed with sudden onset focal segmental glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) in 2004 as a freshman in college. He started taking medication to control his symptoms, but when an administrative snafu canceled his insurance, he was at a loss.
“At that time I was feeling better without the meds,” he says, “but I was actually doing more harm to my kidneys.”
Upon graduation from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Taylor moved back to Chicago, got a job with insurance, and started dialysis, where he spent the next eight years until he got the call on Feb. 1, 2017.
“I have a new life,” he says. “I’m doing things I was not able to do on dialysis. Having energy, getting to travel is just an amazing experience.” Taylor is looking forward to participating in his second Transplant Games in cornhole pickleball, team basketball and team volleyball.
Not pictured: David Keys/Steve Patzia
Cathy Siete has been attending the Games as a volunteer nurse for years. Cathy's mom was a kidney recipient; her sister was the living donor. She's always ready to support Team Illinois.
David Keys of Sycamore is a man of few words and private when it comes to his transplant story. What we do know is that David had a kidney/pancreas transplant on September 1, 2005. David will compete in both team volleyball and basketball.
Steve Patzia from Springfield, Illinois, is another low-profile transplant recipient. Steve received a kidney transplant on Aug. 6, 2019, at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis and will compete for Team Illinois in the 2022 Transplant Games in San Diego.
The best man at the wedding of Brad Szczecinski was none other than his living kidney donor. As Brad explains, he was fresh out of college just trying to make a life in Chicago when he became ill. Diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, a rare kidney disease, he was one of the 40 percent to develop end-stage kidney failure. Were it not for Joe Barrett, whom he met at church and had only known for two weeks, Brad might still be waiting or worse.
On Nov. 14, 1996, the two became friends for life. As a transplant athlete, Brad has traveled the world, often participating in the US and World Transplant Games. He has won more than 30 medals over the past 20 years, and, he says, he owes it all to Joe Barrett.
Now a dad, Brad is a past president of Transplant Life Illinois, and will be cheered on by his wife, Allie, and daughter. He will compete once again in swimming and golf as well as team basketball and volleyball.
Longest living kidney recipient
Deborah Ramsey was 28 years old when she received her life-saving kidney donation on Dec. 11, 1984, at Northwestern. She is the longest-surviving recipient on Team Illinois and a frequent attendee at the Transplant Games in America and internationally.
“I was diagnosed with kidney disease when I was three years old,” Deb says. “That was 65+ years ago! Guess I beat the odds, huh? You bet I did!”
Thirty-seven-and-a-half years, one miracle pregnancy and 12 foster children later, she just retired from running the family seed business in Zion. Ramsey has participated in seven Transplant Games in the United States and several international games. She opts for non-strenuous events, like trivia, but will try her skill at swimming and cornhole in San Diego.
Geno Bianchi, Elmhurst, never knew the cause of stomach discomfort that sent him to the hospital twelve years ago. One minute the college student was playing basketball with friends, the next he was at Loyola fighting for his life. Doctors told Bianchi his liver numbers were so high that he would need a transplant right away. One week later and two-and-a-half days on the waiting list, he received a donated liver on May 11, 2010. Within months Bianchi was back playing basketball. He will rejoin the Spare Parts basketball team, play volleyball, and bowl for Team Illinois in his fourth Transplant Games.
“I'm just very thankful that God provided me with doctors who knew what to do,” he says, “And for organ donation.”
Freddy Perez has attended Transplant Games in 2014 (Houston) and again in 2016 (Cleveland) where he helped the team win a bronze medal in volleyball. The Games have opened a whole new world for the South Side of Chicago native.
Freddie received a heart transplant at Lurie Children’s Hospital on Dec. 23, 2003. About four years later, he had his first setback when a virus attacked his heart (no, it wasn’t Covid). He wasn’t healthy enough to compete in the 2018 Games (Salt Lake City), so he’s super excited to be a part of the team again in San Diego.
“Life is now more gracious,” he says. “Register to be a donor.”
Ross Owens participated in the World Transplant Games in 2017 (Spain) and was hooked. He tirelessly advocates for organ donation from his home in Hillsboro and has trained extensively for the 2022 Transplant Games in San Diego.
Ross served in the U.S. Army from 1970 to 1974, then became a special educator with the Illinois Department of Corrections. He received a liver transplant in March 2011 at St. Louis University Hospital. “My wife Marie and I are very excited to continue competing, and showing the world there is life after an organ transplant,” he says. “Everyone should sign up for organ donation. It saved my life and may help save the life of someone else you know.
“I have worked pretty hard to get this old body in shape,” he says. “The doctor says I am in remarkable shape. I have been doing a light-weight program, a minimum of 200 sit-ups a day, and miles on the treadmill and bike. I will try to be at the top of my game, and I look forward to representing Team Illinois in San Diego. Thank you to everyone for the encouragement along the way.”
Ross will compete in basketball, volleyball, pickleball, track and field events, and darts.
Eric Fischer’s twin brother, Kurt, died suddenly in 2005 of a malfunction in his heart’s electrical system while he was playing baseball. They were 27 years old. Out of caution, doctors implanted a defibrillator in Eric. Everything was normal for over two years until Eric’s heart went into ventricular tachycardia. He passed out, but the defibrillator shocked his heart back into the correct rhythm and saved his life. This cycle eventually became frequent--in his office, in a park, at Walmart, at a comedy club, at the funeral for his mother. His defibrillator repeatedly kept correcting his heart rhythm. One time it shocked him about a dozen times in 20 minutes. Numerous surgeries, including an experimental one, failed to help.
By 2013, any physical exertion, like opening a heavy door, caused him to get shocked. Eric could not pick up his little kids. He walked with a cane. Then on March 4, 2013, at Northwestern Hospital, he was blessed with a new heart after only a matter of days on the 1A transplant list.
Now Eric is unstoppable. The year after his transplant, to prove to his worried wife he was not fragile, Eric completed a half-marathon. He would like to say he ran that half-marathon but “completed” is more accurate. Eric celebrates life every day with his wife, son, twin daughters, and their dog, Amber. He loves movies, camping, the Chicago Bears and White Sox. While having family adventures and making memories, he continues to remember and honor the two lives lost that allowed him to continue his story.
3x kidney recipient
JP Marzano, of Chicago, and his family have been involved with the transplant community for more than 25 years, and the Games have been a huge part of his life. Diagnosed at age 16 with a degenerative kidney disease called Alport syndrome, Marzano has been on two “tours of duty” for kidney dialysis and has had three transplants – all from living donors. His father Jim Marzano was donor #1. Jim will be competing as a living donor for the first time in this year’s Transplant Games. His mother’s friend, Nan Vaile, was donor #2, and one of his best friends from high school, Ben Kraus, became donor #3 in 2007 at Duke University Hospital.
“All are my heroes,” JP says. “My mother was also a kidney recipient, and my Aunt Margie was her living donor. Needless to say, transplantation runs in the family.”
JP first participated in the TGA in 1996 (Salt Lake City) as a member of the inaugural Spare Parts basketball team. He returned in 2010 and had so much fun reuniting with people that he has since gone to every Games. He will return to the in-person event in San Diego in 2022 where he will compete in team basketball, pickleball, table tennis, tennis and team volleyball.