Crossing the FInish Line Together

Her name was Vanesa. She was 16 years old, a typical small-town Iowa girl who liked to shop and hang out with friends. His name was John. He was a 6-feet-2-inch, 210 pound Marine, part of the U.S. invasion force sent to remove Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega in 1989. John had never met Vanesa. In fact, he never would. But his life would eventually depend on her. And when he competes in the Hy-Vee Triathlon in June, John will carry a part of Vanesa to the finish line.


Tension between the United State and Panama boiled over in December 1989, when Panamanian soldiers killed an unarmed American and military strongman Manuel Noriega publicly declared that the countries were at war. Wright and his fellow Marines showed up at Noriega’s door the next day.

The pre-dawn attack was lightning-quick and decisive, but Noriega loyalists were not content to quit without a fight. Twenty-three Americans would die in the invasion. “We were clearing a building when began to take fire,” Wright, a Cedar Rapids native, says. A sniper’s bullet tore into Wright’s abdomen. His military career was over in an instant. But his health problems had just begun.
Wright came home, healed, and enrolled in business school. But his damaged pancreas could no longer control the big Marine’s blood-sugar level. Doctors warned Wright about the many things that can go wrong when diabetes takes over.  He could develop nerve disorders.  He could lose his eyesight. His kidneys, most certainly, would struggle. By November 2003 it had become clear: Wright would need a pancreas and kidney transplant. “The first thing I asked the doctors was: ‘How long is this going to take?’” Wright recalls.


Wright added his name to the list and waited for a call. And waited. Months passed. One year grew into two, and Wright’s blood pressure climbed to a dangerous 200 over 120. The doctors told him: “We don’t know how long your body can last.”

He was put on dialysis, three times a week, and told that he would live no more than a year unless the organs he needed so desperately became available. Wright knew it would take someone else’s tragedy for his life to be saved.

Two years and 10 months after he was wounded in Panama City, Wright weighed 165 pounds and had all but lost the use of his legs. He, his wife, and their two teenaged children knew that the odds were rapidly turning against him. “I had resigned myself that I was not going to make it,” he says.


On Oct. 14, 2006, a teenage girl in Centerville was in a serious car accident. And just like Wright, machines were keeping her alive.

Vanessa Her name was Vanesa Thomas.
“i'm really awesome and fun to hang out w/..i'm not too tall.but i'm not short either..haha..i have brown eyes and red hair!
I love open and honest people..i also like softball, volleyball, and of course hanging out w/ my awesome friends!! I like reading and writing poetry..I like hanging out with friends and of course shopping!” 
– from Vanesa’s online profile


Vanesa L. Thomas, age 16, died Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006 at Mercy Hospital in Des Moines.
Vanesa was born Sept. 19, 1990 the daughter of Scott Thomas and Vicki Wendland.
She was a sophomore at Centerville High School where she was a football manager and in charge of taping the games. Vanesa received the Academic Presidential Award in 2005. One month prior to her death, Vanesa decided to be an organ donor to the Iowa Donor Network.
 – from Vanesa’s obituary


The operations were a success. The list of 105,000 people on a nationwide transplant registry was reduced by one. His name was John Wright, and he decided to breathe every breath, take every step and live every day to the fullest. “You never know which one will be your last,” he says. He jogged. He rode his bike. He swam. He tried to get his Marine Corps body back into shape after three years of needles and medicine and fading hope.

One day, a card arrived from Vanesa’s mother. She described her daughter’s commitment to organ donation and how her daughter once figured that if everyone became a donor, the waiting list Wright was on for almost three years could be eliminated overnight. “I took it upon myself to form a foundation with the primary goal to wipe out that list,” Wright says. “I tired to think of ways I could get people’s attention.”


“The first time I saw a triathlon was in 2007 when two friends and I watched the Hy-Vee race,” Wright recalls. “We stood at the top of the hill by the state Capitol and watched the athletes struggle to the finish. They were in pain, but I was struck by the fact that they all had smiles on their faces.

“I remember my friend said: ‘It’s too bad you didn’t know about this sport before you got sick. It’s exactly the crazy stuff you like to do. “And it kind of all came together.” Wright prepared himself for his first triathlon in April 2008, a sprint-distance event in Pensacola, Fla., near where his parents lived. “I wanted them to see me cross the finish line,” he says. The swim was more than he bargained for, but Wright gutted out the race and finished with that same grin he had witnessed a year earlier in Des Moines.

Injuries from a bike crash two months later stopped his run at the 2008 Hy-Vee race, but Wright, 42, finished the race last year and has made it part of his “one-tri-a-month” tour for 2010. At each stop, he will tell his story - Vanesa’s story - to anyone who will listen, because “you never know which one will be your last.”

Transplant Facts

There were 105,784 people in the United States awaiting organ transplants as of Feb. 22.
There were 26,081 transplants performed between January and November 2009.
There were 13,331 donors identified over the same period.

For information on how to become donor, and to learn more about how donors and recipients are matched, click here. Register for the event Volunteer for the event

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