By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
July 2023 marks a special anniversary for Richard Perez of Canandaigua.
The 68-year-old’s fiancée, Christine Brewer, plans to throw a party to celebrate his 20 years since he received a liver transplant at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital.
“I call that my second birthday,” Perez said.
He frequently expresses his deep gratitude for the donated liver that gave him more years to live.
“It’s the gift of life,” Perez said. “You can’t live without a liver. It’s not like things you can live without, like both kidneys.”
Many decades ago, he had contracted hepatitis C.
“It’s a silent virus,” Perez said. “In most cases, it takes about 30 years to affect the liver. I encourage people to get checked for hepatitis C if they’ve lived in the ‘50s and ‘60s. I had the virus I believe when I joined the Army.”
Without warning, he became so ill in 2002 that relatives from out of state gathered at Strong Memorial Hospital, fearing the worst. After he pulled through the acute crisis, Perez was still seriously ill and was told he needed a liver transplant to survive. Not understanding the transplant process, Perez asked for the procedure right away. Instead, he was put on a liver transplant recipient list, awaiting a donor liver.
“It’s not like they keep them in the back room!” he quipped.
The sickest patients receive priority on the recipient list. As sick as Perez was, it took 10 months before a liver was available. In the meantime, he had a pager designated for “the call” from the transplant team at the hospital. After four false alarms — livers that in fact turned out to be not as good a match as initially thought — he received his new liver and hasn’t looked back.
“It was amazing,” he recalled. “I was so sick that I was in a wheelchair. After surgery, I woke up the next day feeling brand new.”
The new liver has helped him live long enough to see his son, Rich Jr., meet important milestones such as graduating from college, moving to Washington, D.C. for his first job, getting married and having children — Perez’s grandchildren.
He also had more years with his wife, Marie, who died six years ago, and another chance at love with Christine Brewer of Canandaigua, whom he plans to wed April 27.
After his surgery, Perez retired and upon Strong’s request began volunteering to raise awareness about organ donation.
“We’re grateful to the people who donate life to a complete stranger,” Perez said. “We like promoting organ donation because that’s what got us here.
“I always like to say, ‘Please register to be an organ donor. You can’t take your organs with you. Give a chance for someone else to live.’
“I was part of seeing that happen. Save someone’s life; don’t throw your organs away.”
In addition to helping raise awareness of organ donation, Perez helped expand and now leads a volunteer program with Strong’s Friends of Strong to provide comfort to patients and families who undergo an experience not unlike his. His volunteering also includes Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network, the government designated liaison between donors and recipients in the region. Since he began volunteering with FLDRN, the percent of registered donors grew from 27% to more than 40%.
“This accomplishment can be attributed, in large part, to the hard work of our volunteers — particularly Richard Perez,” said Rob Kochik, executive director of Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network in a statement.
Top image: Richard G. Perez is celebrating his 20 years since he received a liver transplant at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital. His fiancee, Christine Brewer, said plans to throw a party to commemorate the date.