When Dottie Lessard was in first grade, she would race the other kids some 60 to 80 meters to the back fence of the schoolyard, her strong legs carrying her so fast she would crash hard into the sturdy chain-link boundary, collapsing on the ground with her friends. Sometimes she finished first; always she had the spectacular feeling of being truly, completely alive. By third grade, however, her body couldn’t match her enthusiasm. Every time she tried to run, it felt like some greater force was reaching down inside her lungs and squeezing them tight, telling her, You can’t have this anymore.
Eventually that force, cystic fibrosis, stopped her from running entirely and filled her lungs with fluid, leaving her choking and gasping for air. She was now the sprinter who couldn’t leave the starting blocks. But she never lost the yearning to just take off.
She decided at a young age that cystic fibrosis wouldn’t define her. If she couldn’t run, she would do other things to stay active: practice free throws on the basketball court or throw a football. “I learned that being strong and active would save my life,” says Lessard, 44, author of Seven Letters That Saved My Life. And eventually being an A-T-H-L-E-T-E did save her.
But by the time she was in her 20s, Lessard was in the hospital more often than not, her runner’s heart trumped by recurring lung infections in organs so weak she only had a 15 percent capacity in one, 20 in the other. “I didn’t really have a life,” Lessard says. “And I knew my life was meant to be more than this.”
Lung transplants were still relatively new in 1991. But Lessard noticed that a friend who had just received new lungs could actually laugh without having a coughing fit. She begged her doctors to put her on a transplant list. The transplant surgeon tried to talk her out of it and told her there was a 50 percent chance she wouldn’t get off the operating table. “OK, that’s a 50 percent chance I can live and breathe and run,” she told him. She got listed in 1992, waited for more than two years and had double lung transplant surgery on October 27, 1994. She died twice on the operating table but doctors revived her. One doctor told Lessard she had saved herself by maintaining a fitness regimen, no matter how incremental, before her transplant. She remained in the hospital for almost six weeks, more than half of that in the ICU.
When she finally came home from the hospital, she started training on a treadmill in her house and working out at a gym. Seven months after her transplant, she decided it was time to take her first run outside. It was a bittersweet moment. The destination: a cemetery three miles away. One month earlier, her mother, who lived long enough to see her daughter receive her new lungs, had died of cancer. Lessard called her father and told him, “Dad, I’m gonna run to Ma.” She laced up the Nikes her parents had given her for Christmas and hit the pavement. She watched her feet cross over the cracks in the cement and listened to herself breathe in the cool spring air. By the time she reached the cemetery, she was exhausted, but she still yelled out, “I’m coming, Ma!” She ran down the hill to her mother’s grave and collapsed over the headstone. “It was truly our time,” says Lessard, who had wanted her mother to be the first to see her run.
That was 16 years ago. Since then, Lessard, a former Nike sponsored athlete, has competed in seven U.S. Transplant Games and won gold at every one but the first. Because she had to wait so long and overcome so many hurdles to become a competitive runner, she understood that being an athlete is not always about winning, but instead “about being able to play in the game or run the race.”
Still, Lessard is a bit of superstar at the Transplant Games. She’s held up as a role model and an inspiration, so she feels the pressure to perform well. But as the mother of a 6-year-old boy named Liam, she can’t help but focus on the kids once she arrives at the Games. Last year, she met a little boy who had received a liver transplant and was still learning to be mobile again with the help of a metal walker. She was so intent on not missing his 25-meter race that she left her hotel room without her racing spikes. She cheered the young fellow on, and when the names were called for the women’s 100-meter sprint, she realized what she had forgotten. There was no time to fetch her spikes, so she ran without them, gave it her all and won anyway.
“There’s a difference between being short of breath because of sickness and being that way because you lived all you could with as much as you could in those moments,” says Lessard. “That’s a metaphor for life.”
Lessard’s main events at the Transplant Games are the 100- and 200-meter sprints, but she also competes in the long jump and team volleyball. The four-day event happens every other year in the United States and on off-years internationally. “It’s life-changing for everyone who goes,” says Lessard, whose coach, Ben Brownsberger, is also her fiancé. “I think every professional athlete should come and see this.”
Lessard not only tries to inspire children at the Transplant Games, she also motivates them through her nonprofit, Dottie’s Dream, which provides home exercise equipment to children with cystic fibrosis and children who are waiting to receive or have received an organ transplant. A life coach, Lessard has also co-founded a business called Whole-Body Wellbeing to help people become empowered through fitness, nutrition and positive thinking.
She says the joy of receiving new lungs never gets old. “To think I have someone’s lungs breathing for me,” she says. “I’m grateful for every breath I take.” Every year on the anniversary of her transplant, she climbs a mountain or a hill in honor of her donor, who fittingly was a mountain climber. This year, she took her son with her. They held hands and climbed a local hill together, leaving a yellow rose at the top. “It’s special every year honoring my donor. I feel like he’s with me,” she says.
Although Lessard has new lungs, she still has cystic fibrosis. It affects her other organs and in 2002, she had a kidney transplant. She also has diabetes and takes insulin every day. “There are times, absolutely, when I have to make the decision, ‘OK what are you gonna choose to do, whine or focus on the positive?’ ” she says. Ultimately though, she lives by her motto: “To truly live life fully, we must do the things we believe we cannot.”
It’s the motto she resorted to when she took her second run seven months after her transplant, this time to her old schoolyard. The fence that she had raced to as a first grader had gotten shaky and rusty. As Lessard slammed into it, she held onto that wire for a long time.