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'Canal Crusade' celebrates the gift of life ; Swim teams hold event to raise organ transplant awareness

No son or mother ever wants to experience this sinking, hopeless feeling: a cruel, up-all-night wait in line. A miracle -- and a miracle only -- that could save the life of one of their loved ones.

Six years ago, 4-year-old Lexi Keller was in a coma for two months waiting for a heart transplant.

"Every day," her mom, Danielle, said, "was not knowing if it'd be our last with her."

Eighteen years ago, Tim Menges' father, Harold, went to the hospital on Christmas Eve. A college student at Geneseo at the time, the current Starpoint High School swimming coach wasn't sure he'd see his dad again.

"He wasn't coming out unless he got a heart," Tim Menges said. "He was down to weeks, or days."

Both Lexi and Harold received new hearts. Both are alive and well today. And on Wednesday, both families united for the second annual "Canal Crusade" between the Starpoint and Lockport swimming teams.

Ten local businesses sponsored events as the Bills, Sabres and Bisons also donated items to be raffled off. Money collected will be pumped into raising awareness of organ transplants through Upstate New York Transplant Services (UNYTS), where Danielle Keller works.

Last year, the event generated more than $5,200. This year, Menges anticipated another strong outpouring with a blood drive at the meet as well. A tally was unavailable at press time for Niagara Weekend.

Demand for organs may forever outweigh supply. More than 109,000 people nationwide, an ever-rising figure, are on the waiting list for various transplants. As the Menges and Keller families know, there's always one more life out there waiting to be saved.

"I've heard Tim tell story a bunch of times, but every time I listen to him, it's like the first time I heard it," Danielle Keller said. "He always engages me, and I always hear a new piece. He's lived it, I lived it, it's never over.

For the Menges family, urgency rose to an all-time high in 1992. Harold's heart condition, cardiomyopathy, was worsening, his heart deteriorating. If he didn't get a new one fast, he'd die. On Christmas Eve, Harold Menges was admitted to the hospital, and the clock began to tick.

Always the consummate optimist, even Harold, 54 years old at the time, was a tad skeptical when he got onto the list for a transplant. Yeah, right, he remembers telling himself.

"It got to be where I was weak and tired all the time," Harold said. The only thing I could do was look up and hope for the best. But I was always positive, never negative."

The heart arrived, he fought through two rough years of medications that he said "knock the hell out of ya," and, 18 years later, he's still going strong. Many others on Menges' waiting list passed away one by one.

But through a hip replacement, a pacemaker and even a stroke, Menges is here. Healthy, active and fully embracing his lease on life.

He saw both of his kids graduate from college and get married. His son has two sons, ages 9 and 6. His daughter has five sons, ages 13, 10, 6, 4 and two weeks. He's camping, traveling and making the three-hour drive down the Thruway from Utica to Buffalo with his wife to watch his grandsons' sports as much as possible.

"I appreciate life a hell of a lot more than I did before," he said. "Each new day is a miracle in progress."

Same for Lexi Keller, who is 11 years old now. She'll get the common cold more often than her peers, but that's it. Through the first quarter of school this year, she didn't miss one day of class.

Already, she aspires to be a teacher someday. That way her inspirational story, her message, can spread.

"We've watched her grow into a young woman," Danielle Keller said, "and that's something we would have never had."

Age, gender and location. That's all the Menges and Keller families learned about the donors. Both were saved by anonymous heroes. Harold Menges said his heart came from a 20-year-old male car accident victim in northern New Jersey. Keller's came from a 3-year-old boy in Maine.

At the most tragic points in the lives of those families, parents needed to make the toughest choices imaginable.

"That mom that said yes and gave Lexi that heart," Danielle Keller said. "I can't imagine what that was like for her."

So at Starpoint, along with Lockport coach John Sullivan, Tim Menges started the Canal Crusade last year. He hopes to raise awareness.

One simple choice, like giving blood, can save a life. Because somebody's always waiting.

"When something like that happens to your family, you want to try to lead the best life you can," Tim Menges said. "I don't know if it's a wake-up call, but it's an awareness of how lucky you are to be alive. When this opportunity came to give back, when we decided to run this charity swim meet, it's such a way to do that.

Added Danielle Keller, "When you roll up your sleeve and donate blood, you don't realize you're a hero, but I watched it. Lexi wouldn't be here without the blood she received. They're heroes. It's a gift you can give all the time.

This Christmas season was special for Harold Menges, just like every single one since the transplant. For three hours one day, he needed to watch his newborn grandson, Thomas Robert Hayter. Never, with any of his grandchildren, has Harold had such intimate one-on-one time.

At his daughter's quiet home, he rocked the child back and forth. And it hit him. A grandfather's age, experience and vulnerability compared with a newborn's innocence, youth and vulnerability. Both ends of the spectrum, he said, are amazing when you really think about it.

It's a moment Menges never thought he'd have 18 years ago.

For more information about UNYTS, visit www.unyts.org.

e-mail: niagaranews@buffnews.com

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