HOLLAND, MI -- Visit the Holland Aquatic Center, and you'll see Fred Nelis' silver and bronze medals from the World Transplant Games. They hang around the neck of a mannequin, who wears a shirt with this message on the back: "Rise like a phoenix ...
HOLLAND, MI -- Visit the Holland Aquatic Center, and you'll see Fred Nelis' silver and bronze medals from the World Transplant Games.
They hang around the neck of a mannequin, who wears a shirt with this message on the back: "Rise like a phoenix -- soar like an eagle."
Nelis lives by those inspirational words. The 63-year-old is still swimming competitively after a heart transplant three years ago.
At the international games held in Spain in June, the Holland man won silver medals in the 50 meter backstroke, 50 meter butterfly and 50 meter freestyle and bronze in the 100 meter freestyle.
"It isn't quite the Olympics but it's a very satisfying feeling," said Nelis, whose toned lanky frame shows his commitment to the sport. "It's mostly because I'm alive."
2017 World Transplant Games Medalist Fred Nelis
Still, the victory is bittersweet for Nelis because his "transplant brother" Gordon Veldman isn't.
Veldman died June 25, the day of the opening ceremony as Nelis and the other transplant athletes gathered in a bullfighting ring in Picasso's hometown of Malaga, Spain.
A week earlier, Nelis had visited Veldman.
"I didn't expect him to pass," said Nelis. "I expected to see him when I returned."
Two men, longtime family friends, became "transplant brothers" when both their lives were saved by organs from the same 32-year-old donor.
"That was a very strong bond we had," Nelis said.
Nelis was 60 when he received a new heart, and Veldman was 67 he was given new lungs.
Both had their transplants surgeries on June 18, 2014 at Spectrum Health.
Nelis' surgery was by Dr. Theodore J. Boeve and his mentor, Dr. Asghar Khaghani.
Khaghani was the same doctor who performed a heart and lung transplant on Amway co-founder Rich DeVos in 1997 at a United Kingdom hospital that saved the Michigan billionaire's life.
One of the top heart transplant surgeons in the world, the British surgeon was recruited to West Michigan to launch Spectrum's heart and lung transplant center in 2009, that was bankrolled by DeVos.
Before their transplants, Nelis and Veldman were friends for more than a decade when they received their transplants.
Nelis owns a Holland manufacturing firm, Yost Vises, with his brothers. Veldman, was a retired service representative for Xerox, who lived in Holland for 14 years before moving to Pentwater.
Nelis was diagnosed with idiopathic cardiomyopathy, a progressive heart disease with an unknown cause.
Veldman suffered for years with emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In 2007, doctors discovered the cause: a genetic disease called Alpha-1, which would potentially destroy his lungs. By the time he had his transplant, he had only 15 percent lung capacity. Walking 10 feet was exhausting and talking was difficult. He figured he had two months left.
Friends Gordon Veldman, 67, left, and Fred Nelis, 60, talk about receiving organ transplants from the same donor in Grand Rapids Monday, March 9, 2015. Veldman, who is from Pentwater, received lungs and Nelis, who is from Holland, received a heart. (Cory Morse | MLive.com)Shandra Martinez | firstname.lastname@example.org
After their surgeries, the men had to remain apart in the hospital because of infection precautions. But Nelis, who recovered more quickly, did laps around 7 Heart every day and as he passed by Veldman's room, they waved to each other.
"Every time we get together, we put the heart and lungs together as close as we can," Veldman told MLive in 2015. "Just for a moment. So they can be close."
The story of the "transplant brothers" was picked up by newspapers around the world.
Although they don't know the identity of the donor, the two men were able to send a letter to the family through Gift of Life Michigan. Nelis also pledged to give a Transplant Game medals to the family of the donor.
In 2016, Nelis won six gold medals at the U.S. Transplant Games in Cleveland. The wins were so unexpected that Nelis and his wife, Jean, hadn't thought to invite their family to watch him compete.
For the World Games, Jean Nelis made sure a contingent of family and friends provided a cheering section for Nelis during the two days he swam.
He teased his four grown daughters it was now their turn to spend long hours waiting to watchin him swim like he did when they were kids.
"I said 'I'm going to have a little payback,'" he said.
Jean Nelis is quick to add that their daughters were thrilled to support their dad.
Competition at the Transplant Games takes a backseat to gratitude.
It's the families of the donors who receive the standing ovations and the loudest cheers.
"Everybody there has been been doing well in their life," Nelis said. "They are happy to be healthy. It's a new healthy."
The games are intended to encourage transplant patients to be fit for life. Staying healthy means staying active.
Nelis is already planning on swimming in the 2018 U.S. Transplant Games, which will be held in Utah.
He is also writing a book about how swimming helped him before and after his transplant, in collaboration with Timothy Hawkins, a writer on Spectrum Health's communications team.
The book's working title is "Stop trying to live, start living to try."
Nelis credits his lifelong swimming regiment for making him good candidate for a transplant, and for delaying the surgery as long as possible. Even with a half capacity functioning heart, Nelis competed for 20 years at the Masters level swimming.
"I was preparing the inevitable -- even though I tried to outswim it," Nelis said.
With his new heart, he has swam more than 310 miles. Nelis has made swimming laps part of his near daily life since age 14. He logs about 13,000 yards during an hour workout, which he does about five times a week.
When Nelis was first diagnosed with his heart condition, he was told he would have to quit swimming because it was too taxing.
He stopped following that advice after two weeks and found a new cardiologist, Dr. Mike Dickerson.
"If anybody is going to outswim this, you are" Dickerson told him.
Nelis did that until May 2013 when he developed atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat. Less than a year later, he was listed for a heart transplant.
Dickerson is now the medical director of Spectrum's heart and lung transplant program.
Spectrum performed its first heart transplant in November 2010 and has done 88 since then. It has performed 82 lung transplants since the first one in February 2013. There have also been two combined heart/lung transplants.
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