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Mike Barker kissed his newborn granddaughter on Valentine’s Day and quietly thanked a family he doesn’t know.
“If I hadn’t had the transplant, I might never have met her,” Barker said of Adaline.
Only seven months ago, Barker received the liver of a teenager who died accidentally. He and his wife, Fatima, are dedicating their half-marathon run in this weekend’s 41st The Cowtown Marathon to the donor and the family who made the transplant possible.
“This family, in the worst grief of their lives, had the generosity, the caring heart to donate organs,” Barker said. “This is my opportunity to encourage people to be organ donors, and to give some recognition to the family. The organs from one donor can literally save up to eight people’s lives.”
The Barkers will carry that message on their bodies during the race, wearing T-shirts that read: Running on recycled parts (his), and My husband is running on recycled parts (hers).
This is the sixth year in a row the Barkers will run in the Cowtown, and Mike Barker credits years of marathon running for the speed of his recovery after the July 16 transplant surgery.
“I’m fine now,” he said. “I was in the hospital for about a week. I was at home recovering for two months and was able to go back to work. Before the surgery I had stopped running for almost a year, as far as being able to race. I could run occasionally, but didn’t have the energy I needed, because my liver wasn’t working well.”
Because of his infirmity, Barker, 55, was only able to run the half-marathon last year. Over the last seven years, the Barkers’ running history includes full marathons in Fort Worth and Dallas, but also at Niagara Falls, Quebec, Calgary, Vancouver, and Big Sur.
“We like to add a vacation and travel to marathons,” Barker said. “While you’re running, you get to see views most people don’t get to see because [race coordinators] create routes through the main tourist areas, but you have vantages most people don’t get.”
Barker remembers being a little quicker in previous races. But the couple’s priorities have shifted.
“Now it’s a matter of finishing the race,” he said. “I found out when I hit the wall that my body can go further than it thinks it can go. That really helped me keep up my spirits in the days before the transplant.”
When he decided to do this year’s Cowtown, Barker said his doctors told him to “listen to my body, but they don’t see any issues. They actually encouraged me to stay active. It’s good for my body to keep moving.”
There are cautions about the race. Barker said he has to be careful around large crowds of people, because the medicines he takes to prevent organ rejection also weaken his body’s immunity to diseases.
“Also, I can’t be out in the sunlight a lot,” he said. “I’ll be packing on the sunscreen.”
The Barkers, who live in Irving, will be joined by Mike’s mother, Jean Harris, to run in Saturday’s 5K.
“She’s doing it because of my liver transplant,” he said. “But she’s never run like this before. She’s very active and walks fast [exercising]. Lately, she’s put a little jogging into her training.”
Without revealing her age, Barker said his mom will finish the 5K even if she has to stagger the last K or so.
“She will finish it,” he said. “I know her. That’s where I got my hard headedness.”
Barker said the Cowtown is the first race he wanted to run post-transplant “because it’s one of the best organized and well supported by the community. People come out all along the route to cheer for the runners. First responders are very attentive throughout the course, and they make me feel safe trying to run a race seven months after the transplant.”
Fatima Barker, a physical therapist who’s in nursing classes at the University of Texas at Arlington, said this year’s Cowtown is the most significant race of their lives, because of the special gift her husband received.
“This also is our favorite race because we feel safe in this community, and we appreciate the great spirit of the supporters,” she said. “Each mile there’s something like a group of cheerleaders from the community, and every other mile there’s a water station. My favorite spot is where we hit the eighth mile in downtown Fort Worth.”
Obviously, Fatima, a Philippines native, is grateful to the parents who donated their child’s liver and saved her husband’s life.
“If it hadn’t been for them I might not be running the marathon with him,” she said. “I might not be doing anything with him. It means our life together isn’t over. We’re going to continue running together because of them.”
Mike Barker said he doesn’t know his donor’s name, or even whether the teen was a boy or girl. He and Fatima wrote a letter thanking the family, which a social worker then sent. They haven’t received a reply.
“The family may or may not want recipients to know who they are,” he explained. “It’s up to them to decide whether or not we will meet. It may take up to a couple of years before they write back. My daughter, my mother and people I work with wrote letters to them, too.
“We wanted to pour a lot of love on that family and make sure they know there are a lot of people thinking about them.”