Only a liver transplant from a living donor was going to save Alan Richards’ life.
Richards, of the Rocky Mountain House-area, was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis, a rare bile duct disease, in 2003 and by 2013 his condition had deteriorated to the point that his name was added to the transplant list to wait for a donor.
Because of his rare blood type, a liver from a deceased donor would be almost impossible to find so it was not an option Richards.
A year later on March 3, Richards was wheeled into surgery along with his donor and nephew Brayden Dezall.
Transplant surgery for Richards, 61, lasted 14 hours. Dezall underwent an 11-hour surgery to donate 70 per cent of his liver.
Richards said it’s almost impossible to put into words how he feels about Dezall’s gift of life.
“He said, ‘Just sign me up. What do I need to do?’ For someone at 23 years old, it’s a statement about character,” said Richards about his nephew.
“I was still very hesitant. It’s a very difficult to ask someone to put their life at risk to save my sorry, old hide,” he said with a laugh.
Dezall, of Rocky, said he just knew he had to try to help his uncle after seeing what a double kidney transplant did for his mother-in-law.
Dezall had many criteria to meet including blood type, age, body structure, and physical and mental health, in order to be the right donor.
“Getting a transplant is a very difficult thing to do. Twenty-five per cent of the people that go on a transplant list never get a transplant. They end up passing away first,” Richards said.
Both Richards and Dezall’s surgeries went well and both their livers will regenerate to normal size.
“It’s almost back to size now, something like 90 per cent. To be able to do that is remarkable,” Dezall said.
He said the experience has also changed the way he looks at life. He has re-examined how he treats himself and others.
“I feel I’ve taken a lot of stuff for granted. I feel it’s made me a better person as a whole.”
And he’s seen a night to day transformation in his uncle.
Prior to the surgery, Richards was wasting away quickly and suspected he only had a few months to live.
Since his surgery nine weeks ago, he has put on 25 pounds, and boasted that he felt practically normal again.
“I feel like a million bucks, and really that’s an understatement.”
Richards was in hospital for two weeks recovering from his surgery at the University of Alberta Hospital and has been living with family in Beaumont to stay close to the hospital for frequent blood tests and checkups and attends physiotherapy with other transplant recipients.
Richards and his wife Cheryl have also connected to transplant recipients on the Internet. After his surgery he received hundreds of congratulations from around the world.
“That alone became so overwhelming, it almost seemed like I was in tears most of the time,” Richards said.
Blood tests are now required only twice a week and Richards can return home to Central Alberta in early June just in time for the Canadian Liver Foundation’s Stroll for Liver at Red Deer’s Bower Ponds on June 14.
“Absolutely, I’m going to be there for the stroll. I think I’m going to walk the whole 5K. I don’t see any reason I won’t be able to by then. Physiotherapy is going extremely well.”
Richards and his family have been very successful in raising money for the event with their team Richards Renegades.
The team is currently holding an online auction on Facebook with the help of businesses in the Rocky Mountain House area. The auction runs until midnight on May 15 to raise money for Stroll for Liver. To participate visit Stroll For Liver Online Auction.
Last year the local stroll raised over $17,000. Richards Renegades brought in over $7,500. Team Laura, another Rocky team led by Laura Weimar, brought in about $7,500 to make the two Rocky teams top fundraisers for the event.
Richards said the Rocky teams are helping to encourage Red Deer participants to “pick up their game.”
Recently the province developed an online registry for people to sign up to become organ and tissue donors after they die.
Richards said he had signed the petition in support of developing the Alberta Organ and Tissue Donation Registry.
Dezall, who is back at work as an electronics technician with Sanjel Corporation of Red Deer, also encouraged people to become donors and was pleased the province doing something to raise the awareness of organ donation.
Three weeks after surgery his to donate part of his liver, Dezall signed the donor card on the back of his Alberta Health Care Insurance Card.
“Mine just sat in my wallet. That’s changed now.”