MCCONNELL AFB, KS -- Airmen do it all the time. They open the door, grab a ticket, have a seat and wait their turn.
Some read magazines. Others listen to the ol’timer already in his chair, getting his
hair cut and talking the dust off his shelf of military memories.
The visit to the base barber shop has been part of Senior Master Sgt. Chuck Smith’s routine for more than 22 years.
But to Robin Lawley, manager of the barber shop at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., Chuck is more than a regular customer. He’s a friend.
That’s why Chuck asked, during one stop for a cut last winter, “How did things turn out with your brother?”
“He’s not a match,” she replied, sending a quick shock down Chuck’s spine.
He could sense the hopelessness in her answer.
Robin’s brother, until now, was hope. The most likely donor to end nine years of torment from a genetic liver disorder. Robin needed a new liver and she needed it soon. Chuck knew how sick she was. She was constantly exhausted and one of the medicines she took caused horrendous itching. She told him how blood would drain into her stomach, forcing her to vomit it out.
“Would you consider me?” Chuck asked her as he paid for his haircut.
She didn’t know how to reply.
She considered Chuck her friend but she didn’t know him that well. Even if she
did, it wasn’t like she needed to borrow a good friend’s car. She needed a human
organ and someone willing to undergo life-threatening surgery.
Chuck left the shop with no real answer to his question. He realized his offer caught Robin off guard and he didn’t want to put her on the spot.
“Do you think Chuck was serious?” she asked her husband, Bryan, later that
night. Bryan, a reservist and full-time civilian for the 931st Air Refueling Group,
worked with Chuck at the 931st before he joined a different reserve unit. “Let’s call
him and find out,” Bryan said.
It was the last phone call Robin wanted to make. But time was not on her side. Her aunt was already dead from the same disease. Robin was taking a Ziploc bag full of drugs a day; nine pills in the morning, five for lunch and four more before bed. Her arms and hands were full of marks left from countless needles.
Her throat was beginning to fill with scar tissue from the scope her doctor regularly sent down into her to stop the blood drainage into her stomach. She couldn’t swallow anything for three days after each scoping. Not even water.
“There’s nothing more I can do you for you,” her doctor finally told her. “I’m sending you to a transplant clinic in Nebraska.”
Robin and Bryan met with Chuck and his wife, Susie, who they also knew from McConnell where Susie is an active-duty technical sergeant. Five months later Chuck was in Nebraska for three days of testing to see if he was a possible donor. He was.
“He came home and told me everything involved. He was real confident he wanted to do it,” Susie remembered. “I wasn’t as confident.” Chuck told her about the possible complications of the transplant, including the worst. Some people had died from it.
Just the thought of life and death surgery struck at the nerve of Susie’s worst fears as a wife. Now her husband wanted to volunteer for it.
They talked it over. Chuck knew Suzie believed in him and shared his strong belief in helping others. And, not only would another match for Robin be difficult to find (the Nebraska doctors told her she’d likely be waiting years), someone willing
to volunteer might even be harder to come by. Susie decided to support Chuck’s decision.
The Day Before
Surgery was scheduled for a Tuesday later that summer.
Robin, Bryan, Chuck and Susie arrived for routine preparation at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Neb., early in the morning the day before.
Robin slept only a few hours the night before and is tired. She tries to stay in good spirits. She jokes with Chuck about her having to change into a hospital gown for her X-rays but he didn’t for his.
They’re ahead of schedule by mid-morning and go to the Organ Transplant Clinic to see if they can get into their other appointments early.
“Hurry up and wait,” Susie says out loud, citing a military adage familiar to all four, as they sit in the lounge. No luck getting in sooner.
Chuck plays with a handheld video game while the monotonous sounds of automated vending echo from a nearby machine.
Robin fiddles with some papers, trying to keep busy, but gives up. The weight of tomorrow isn’t the only thing pressing down on her. Her stepfather is also in the hospital. His doctors say he is in the last days of terminal cancer and Robin’s mother isn’t able to come to Nebraska for the transplant.
“The machine says $1.25 but it doesn’t take quarters,” Bryan says, carrying back drinks and snacks and explaining the constant sound of change dropping.
Robin and Chuck are eventually called in to meet with members of their transplant team. They go over everything one last time. Bile leak, bleeding, bacterial infection, fungal infection and death are among the possible complications explained
“You are ready?” the doctor asks. They assure him they are and the doctor finishes asking questions and filling out paperwork.
“When was the last time you drank alcohol,” he asks. “July 4,” Chuck proudly responds. “And he called to tell me about it,” Robin chimes in, laughing.
Lunch, more waiting, solving the maze-like layout of the hospital and more routine appointments take up the rest of the day.
Later, finished at the hospital, Robin cuts Chuck’s hair one last time before their surgery. For the most part, Robin and Chuck are quiet. The question of when Chuck will again sit in her barbershop chair hangs in the air.
Chuck tells Robin he has a gift for her and after his haircut he gives it to her. An onion. “I’m already giving you my liver so I figured I’d give you the complete meal,” Chuck jokes
Robin spends the rest of the evening with Bryan and her children. Chuck goes to a minor league baseball game. The temperature is just right, almost a perfect night for baseball.
Perfect, except for the traditional game beer Chuck can’t have sitting on his lap.
The Day Of
Chuck is carted off to surgery at 7:30 a.m., earlier than expected. Robin waits with her family in the main hospital lounge. Her brother is there and she talks with him about the situation with their mother and stepfather. As bad as the timing and the emotional state of their mother is, the topic keeps Robin’s mind a little bit away from her own situation.
She figures she will go in on time, if not sooner, since Chuck went in early.
But unknown to her, Chuck’s liver is bigger than the doctors expected. They have to recalculate their procedure and Robin’s scheduled surgery time comes and goes.
“I’m about starving,” she says, having fasted since the night before. “They won’t even let me chew gum.”
The doctors finally call her in and the long waiting is replaced by a fast exchange
of doctors and nurses. Bryan sits near the wall of the small, curtained-off room as his exhausted wife is continuously questioned and prodded.
Robin winces and yells out in pain when a young intern tries to find a vein in her hand with an intravenous needle.
A nurse tries the other hand. “There’s only one nurse in the whole clinic (back home) that can find my vein,” Robin tells them.
Her preparation ends and Brian only gets a brief moment alone with Robin before she is wheeled off. He heads upstairs to join Susie in the transplant waiting room where they receive phone calls with updates of the surgery.
At 11 a.m., Chuck is half-way done.
“Every time the phone rings my heart starts beating,” Susie says to her parents, who have driven in from Wyoming for the transplant.
Bryan is told at 1 p.m. that Robin was just cut open. Susie is told at 1:30 p.m. Chuck’s liver is out. An hour later, “Robin’s old liver is out and the new one is going in.” Soon after, Susie gets the news. Chuck is finished and in recovery. She would soon be able to see him.
It’s not until 5 p.m. that a doctor gives Brian the same good news. “I can breathe now,” Bryan says.
The transplant is a success but it’s not until after 9 p.m. when other family and friends can see Robin and Chuck.
Both are relatively well and their families are visibly overjoyed at the outcome of the day. Chuck is even able to crack jokes with the nurses. Outside his room, Susie’s parents talk with the hospital chaplain. He tells them its extremely rare donors and recipients ever meet each other, let alone are friends. The chaplain is amazed at Chuck’s courage and generosity. “If you knew Chuck, you wouldn’t be so amazed,” Susie’s mom replies.
“That’s just who he is.