Jamie’s Journey: Sisters run together after liver transplant

Jamie Caminiti and Melissa Black participating in Fifth Third River Bank Run

Jamie Caminiti, Melissa Black
Sisters Jamie Caminti and Melissa Black.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Jamie Caminiti runs because she can, despite circumstances that dictated she probably shouldn’t be able to.

Caminiti was born with biliary atresia, a rare liver disease.

“When I was 6 or 7, I started realizing, OK, I take medicine, I’m not like everyone else,” she recalled. “Down the road, no matter what, I was going to need a new liver. When I was born, they said I would need one by the age of 7.”

She also has cystic fibrosis, a chronic and sometimes deadly genetic disorder that causes mucus to build up in the lungs, often making breathing while running difficult, if not impossible.

“One day, when (I was in middle school), my mom was jogging and I went along with her, and she was like, ‘Man, you have really good endurance,'” Caminiti remembered. “I could run like two miles, no big deal. I mean, it wasn’t fast, but she knew I had endurance and she’s like, ‘You should try cross country.'”

So she did. Caminiti shined in middle and high school, even winning a scholarship from the Boomer Esiason Foundation as a senior for being the top female student runner with cystic fibrosis in the nation.

“I won $10,000, so that was really nice for school,” Caminiti said with a smile.

She put the money toward attending Cornerstone University, where she joined the cross country and track teams under head coach Rod Wortley.

“Always enthusiastic and always full of life, which was really inspirational,” Wortley said of Caminiti. “The rest of your team has to stay up if she’s up. You can’t be down if Jamie’s around.”

But after two years of running at Cornerstone, Caminiti was forced to leave the team.

“I was feeling worn out, tired,” she said.

She was more than just tired. Shortly after she left the team, in August 2012, she underwent a routine liver exam. The news from doctors wasn’t good.

“They found two tumors,” she said.

She was diagnosed with liver cancer and would needed a transplant.

“We just started that process and kept having chemo treatments to try to get rid of the tumors before the transplant,” Caminiti said.

As she, like so many others, waited on the list, a donor happily volunteered — her older sister, Melissa Black.

“I had been blessed with a lot of good health and it was just always something I wanted to do (for her),” Black said.

So on Feb. 18, 2013, Caminiti and Black underwent transplant surgery at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. Black donated 65 percent of her liver, the largest amount allowed by law, to her sister.

“It’s really neat because it regenerates to a whole, but because I’m more fun size and everything, her 65 percent equated into a whole for me pretty much,” Caminiti, who is only about 5 feet tall, said with a laugh.

After they both struggled a bit at times early in recovery, Black had an idea.

“She was like, ‘We’re going to need to get motivated and everything,'” Caminiti said.

Black decided they should train to run the New York City Marathon, which was just nine months after the transplant. Neither had ever run a marathon before.

“I’ve always been pushing her to run long races with me and I thought that would be pretty cool,” Black said.

“When she first asked me, I was like, I can’t say no because she just gave me her liver,” Caminiti said, laughing.

So that November, they ran the New York City Marathon.

“It was a miracle more than anything else that we could do it,” Caminiti said. “Throughout the race, remembering being in the hospital and remembering, ‘You made it through that, you can make it through this.'”

This week, they will return to Grand Rapids to participate in the Fifth Third River Bank Run on Saturday. They were initially planning to run the 25K, but Black recently learned she is pregnant, so they may run the 5K instead.

“The year I had the cancer, and the year I left the team, I ran a lot of local races,” Caminiti said. “And that just really helped me to stay strong and healthy going into (treatment). … I really loved the races I ran.”

“Grand Rapids has always held a special place in my heart,” she continued. “I love that area.”

Black agreed.

“We’re just so thankful she’s healthy,” she said.


Fifth Third River Bank Run