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DRUGS PROVE LIFESAVERS FOR THESE ATHLETES

We've heard enough lately about performance-enhancing drugs, but something tells me athletes would rather avoid the following: neoral, verapanil, loratadine, prevacid, lipitor, setinic, mycelex, oysco, cell-cept, bumetadine, doxazosin, accupril, norvasc, omega-5 and, lest we forget, arenesp.

Sprinter-jumper Justin Allen of the Town of Tonawanda takes all 15, and you might say they've enhanced his performance. How do we know for sure? He was breathing Wednesday. He would likely be on the fast track to the cemetery without the medicine, but instead he was on his way to Minneapolis for his biggest meet of the season.

It's the track meet too few people hear about every year because they're immersed with Marion Jones and the 2004 Summer Olympics and the people running BALCO. The competitors in the U.S. Transplant Games, which open today, aren't world-class athletes. They are world-class survivors.

"The thing that bothers me is when (elite athletes) take these performance-enhancers that are harmful to your body. They only think about winning," Allen said. "Then there are other people, people who haven't been dealt the best hand. They're fighting every day, doing whatever they can to make it to the next day."

Allen was planning to compete Friday in the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and high jump if he can muster enough strength for all four events. He hasn't been feeling well lately because the kidney his father gave him in 1998 is running on empty. He's waiting for another transplant, his mother next in the line of donors. This is a family that knows how to perform under pressure.

Allen, 26, figures he's been fortunate. He found two available kidneys in the same house. Other victims wind up on long lists. Too many stay there until time runs out. Allen was 19, a decathlete for Liberty University, when he started experiencing abnormal swelling and splitting headaches. In no time, he was in the intensive care unit at Sisters Hospital. Within six months, doctors were transferring a father's kidney to his son.

"We hope that when people see us out there running and having a great time that it will encourage them to sign that donor card and get the word out," he said. "I was very lucky to have my parents match me. There are a lot of people who aren't as lucky as I am, who are waiting for that one call. It's a life-changing process."

Ask Patti Merritt of Grand Island. She's a kidney-transplant survivor who is running the 5K Friday on the third anniversary of her operation. She's running the 1,500 meters Saturday. She was 37 two years ago when her sister-in-law gave her a lifetime extension, interrupting the Polycystic Kidney Disease that killed Merritt's father and landed her 43-year-old sister on the list of people in need of transplants.

Merritt would gladly surrender a kidney for her sister -- if she had one to give. Merritt, too, is familiar with the pharmacist. Her hair was falling out at one point before the art of trial and error with her medications came into play.

"You have to take the side effects in stride," she said. "You have to look at the big picture. We're healthy and we're going to compete."

More than two dozen Western New Yorkers are expected to compete in the Transplant Games this weekend. Among them is Joey Simonick, 11, who had a heart transplant when he was six weeks old. It's funny when people see him now because his heart is all they see.

Joe LoGalbo is 71 and will swim with a new kidney. Scott Nichol, who had a liver transplant when he was 8, is competing in the Games for the third time. Jeff Loftus is golfing and bowling with a new heart.

They are names. They are people. They are alive.

Looking for a sports hero? Take your pick.
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com