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BREAKING NEWS

Wells man urges all to consider organ donation

Liver transplant saved former police chief Rick Herman’s life

By CJ Holl - Special to the Register | Apr 25, 2021

Rick Herman and his wife Kay are all smiles while they enjoy time being with their five grandchildren, Jack, Brelan, Avery, Shaylee and Liam.

You could be forgiven, in the middle of a yearlong international pandemic, with trials dominating the headlines and the opening day of baseball, for forgetting that April is Organ Donor Awareness Month.

However, Rick Herman, of Wells, is all too aware of the importance of organ donation. It’s been almost a year since a liver transplant saved his life.

Herman was the former Police Chief of Wells, serving as a part-time and full-time officer from 1994-2004 and police chief from 2004-2009. After retiring as chief, he was the Community Service Officer (CSO) at United South Central Schools in Wells from 2009-2016.

Herman’s health journey started in 2007 when he had to have his gall bladder taken out and was diagnosed with primary sclerosing cholangitis or PSC. It is a rare genetic disease and causes a narrowing of the bile ducts of the liver.

“It is something I was born with,” says Herman. “It’s not something you want to hear from your surgeon that surgery went well, but…”

That was the start of an 11-year medical monitoring that eventually led to a May 2020 liver transplant at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. In 2017, he started to experience abdominal pain. In 2018, the disease had progressed where he had to have bile ducts “cleaned.” With abnormal biopsies, the decision was made to start chemotherapy and radiation, much like one would receive for cancer.

In March 2019, Herman was placed on the transplant list and told it could be a year or two until he could get a transplant. Almost exactly a year later in March 2020, he was put at the highest priority for a liver transplant.

“Nobody told me how much time I had left,” says a now obviously healthy Herman, “but it was pretty clear my days were numbered. I didn’t realize how bad I was.”

Being on the final call list was nerve wracking for Herman. His wife of 35 years, Kay, had people lined up to help. They had a list of what to bring and had to be within hours of Rochester.

“It was like expecting and not knowing your due date. We were always wondering was this the day I would get the phone call? You didn’t go anywhere without a cell phone,” Herman explains.

On May 18, 2020 that call did come at 7:30 p.m. Herman and his wife were in Rochester by 10:30 p.m. and the transplant from a deceased donor took place at 4 a.m. The surgery took three hours and he awoke by 3 p.m. the next day.

Herman quipped that his marriage vows with Kay said ‘for better or worse’ and she got the worse and he got better. It wasn’t better right away. Herman says he still had two days in ICU and eight days in the hospital, then weeks at The Gift of Life, a transitional care unit for transplant patients.

Along the way, Herman didn’t know how sick he really was. He just thought he was getting old, out of shape, out of energy. He said he couldn’t have gotten to the transplant without the help of his neighbors, family and friends. Several even went through testing to see if they could donate.

He said folks helped at the farm with planting, harvesting and maintenance. People would notice his need and help without being asked. Herman says one day that Mark Schmitz, the local Wells State Farm agent, noticed his headlight was out and came over with a new one and replaced it.

“Those things always seemed to come at the right time and it was comforting to know we had that backup,” Herman says.

Life for Herman is nearly back to normal a year after surgery. He must take anti-rejection medication twice per day and his energy and stamina has mostly returned. He says he didn’t realize how bad he was until now. It was such a slow progression over time, he didn’t notice, but people have commented his color looks good and Herman says he can work his farm and his trucking business about like he used to.

There are now five grandkids for the Hermans, two who came after the transplant.

“Last year was a big year. I got a new liver and two new grandkids.” Herman pauses, a bit choked up. “They will grow up knowing grandpa, instead of hearing about grandpa.”

Herman has also thought about the donor family. He reached out through the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a donor organization, with a letter. He doesn’t know anything about the donor except that it was a male, younger than himself. He is unsure if he will hear from the donor family or not.

“I think about them often, my donor and his family. Christmas was tougher than I thought. If I hadn’t gotten a transplant, it would have likely been my last Christmas. You reflect on life a lot,” Herman explains. “I’m living because I have a part of someone else inside me. It is tough to wrap your head around.”

With April being Organ Donor Awareness month, Herman urges everyone to sign up to become a donor. Put it on your driver’s license and let your family know that is what you want to do.

“Do it. The alternative isn’t good” Herman says from experience. He pointed out that a donation doesn’t help just one person, it helps a whole community. In his case, his family, his neighbors and his friends all benefited from the gift he received.