Growing up in Thermal, California, Richard Perez looked forward to buying a new comic book with his small allowance every time he visited the grocery store.
Heroes like Batman, the X-Men, and Sub-Mariner inspired him with their strength and accomplishment — and may have influenced his choice to become what many would consider a modern day hero.
After serving in the U.S. Marines, where he saw heavy combat in the first Gulf War, Richard most recently has worked with high school-age foster children through his job as a case manager at San Pasquale Academy.
But on October 13, 2011, Richard found a new focus for his courage and determination. That morning, he became Scripps Green Hospital’s 500th liver transplant patient. From now on, he says, his mission is getting back to normal following a difficult battle with a deadly enemy: liver disease.
Richard’s journey began in January 2011 when he was admitted to another hospital through the emergency department. Weighing 55 pounds more than normal and experiencing debilitating hip pain, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and, in a surprising turn of events, cirrhosis.
Richard discovered that the extra weight he had been carrying was all retained fluid, which is a side effect of liver disease. Cirrhosis is considered the final stage of liver disease; the condition is not reversible and would require a transplant.
After transferring to Scripps Green Hospital, Richard’s worsening pneumonia required eight days on life support in the intensive care unit.
While he recovered enough to go home within two weeks, he was re-admitted eight times in the next six months due to complications from his liver disease. Then in early October, worsening liver failure sent him back to the hospital for what could have been the last time.
“The doctors told us if we were praying people, now would be the time to start praying,” says Sam Scarpelli, Richard’s partner of 12 years. “I knew if he didn’t get a transplant, he would never come home again. On the 12th of that month, they told me Richard had no more than two to six weeks left. So I went to the chapel and I asked for the transplant. But I also told God, if it wasn’t meant to be, just to take Richard home. Seeing him suffer was awful.”
Fifteen minutes after Sam returned to Richard’s room from the chapel, three physicians entered the room and said, “There is a donor liver. It’s a good match.”
Richard had much to be thankful for during the 2011 Thanksgiving holiday, which fell five weeks after his transplant. Although he was still sore and had lost nearly 60 pounds from his normally muscular frame, he was hard at work getting back to the life he loves.
He continues his weekly visits to Scripps Clinic to check his blood work and adjust his medication levels, and he’s working to regain his strength and mobility with the help of physical therapists from Scripps Home Health Care.
“Richard was our 500th liver transplant, a milestone we’re proud of because it signifies 500 lives saved,” says Scripps transplant surgeon Jonathan Fisher, MD.
“But what’s more important than that statistic is that Richard should be back to doing what he loves within a year. One person at a time, we’re helping people like Richard get their lives back, and it’s incredibly gratifying.”
Dr. Fisher says he is happy with Richard’s progress and emphasizes that liver failure can be the result of risk factors that aren’t widely recognized.
“One of the problems with liver disease is that many people, like Richard, do not realize they have it until they are very, very sick,” he says. “Fatty liver and other liver conditions can arise just from being overweight, or from things they did years ago. I’ve had patients who take prescription medications that wreak havoc with the liver, and many people don’t realize that even over-the-counter pain reliever can cause serious, sometimes life-threatening liver problems. If somebody notices unexplained weight gain, fatigue, memory loss, or jaundice and has any of the risk factors for liver disease, they should see their primary care physician and be evaluated.”
Today, the comic book collection Richard began as a child has grown to more than 1,000 issues.
“It’s hard to say who my favorite character is,” he says, taking a long moment to consider the question seriously. “I think maybe it’s Sub-Mariner. He’s like Aquaman — a prince of Atlantis — so sure of himself, so independent, so determined. I just love his style.”
Sam says some of those same qualities are now helping Richard work hard on his postsurgical rehabilitation.“He’s so stubborn — it’s the Marine in him, I think,” Sam jokes.
Richard’s short-term goal is to get healthy, get his strength back, and get back to working with his San Pasquale Academy students.
“Working with those kids is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had,” he says.
Both Richard and Sam say they wish they could personally express both their sympathy and endless gratitude to the family of Richard’s donor.
“I know somebody lost a loved one that day,” says Sam, “and we are so sorry for their loss. We hope they know that. And at the same time, we are profoundly grateful that they gave us the chance to keep our family together. To us, they are true heroes.”