Published December 25. 2001 4:00AM Updated December 28. 2009 3:27PM
Stonington -- Last Christmas, 11-year-old Zachary Abbett asked Santa Claus for a new kidney. This holiday season Zach is training to compete as a swimmer in the U.S. Transplant Games in June. He will be part of Team Connecticut, a group of 53 athletes that will travel to Disney World in Florida for the four-day, 12-sport competition among almost 2,000 people with organ transplants. Zach received his new kidney in March.
To prepare himself Zach has been swimming and lifting weights at the Mystic Community Center with his coach, Dave Podziewski of Norwich. He still has to take 13 different medicines each day to prevent organ rejection and other problems, but he can now eat without vomiting, something that plagued him before the transplant.
“When he was sick like that we couldn't even think about Christmas. We just focused on each day and seeing if he would get a kidney. We were worried about him having to start dialysis and getting sicker. We had no idea how this year would turn out,” said Laura Abbett, Zach's mother, as her son polished off his second helping of pasta one day last week. “Every Christmas now is like a celebration of life for all of us.”
Compounding the Abbetts' problems last Christmas was that they were struggling to pay Zach's mounting medical bills. After reading about their plight, people across the region donated money and gifts to the family. Valenti Auto Mall of Mystic gave the family a nearly new minivan after reading that the Abbetts were worried their aging van would no longer be able to get Zach to his numerous doctor's appointments in Hartford.
“If it wasn't for all those people I don't know how we could have ever made it. It was a blessing. It was the nicest thing anyone could ever do,” Laura Abbett said.
The biggest gift came from Tia DeWick of New London. She read about Zach in The Day and offered to donate one of her kidneys to him even though she had never met him. DeWick and the Abbetts have stayed in touch since the transplant took place at Hartford Hospital in March.
Since then Zach has made steady progress. He's decreased the number of medications he has to take, and his doctors' visits have gone from several times a week to just once every six weeks.
He has more energy and he's back attending Mystic Middle School. In September, he began swimming and lifting weights at the community center to get ready for the competition.
The Transplant Games will be a big accomplishment for Zach, who has battled a series of medical and developmental problems since birth.
“It will be fun. I want to win a medal,” said Zach, who also plans to compete in bowling.
Laura Abbett, who has become active in the organ donation movement, is selling candy and teddy bears to help raise money so she, along with her husband Alan and daughter Amber Podziewski, can attend the Games. Zach's expenses are covered.
Although Laura Abbett is working more now that Zach is better and her husband Alan has a job, too, the family still faces some tough financial times as the Zach's prescription bills are expensive. Those things seem minor, though, compared to the problems they have overcome.
“Whether we have a lot of things for Christmas or not, seeing how he is now,” she said, “we couldn't ask for a better Christmas gift than that.”