What does one send an old boss as a sign of appreciation? A bottle of wine? A luxury pen? Leatherbound books?
James Gettys Elementary third-grade teacher Bill Shellenhamer offered up the ultimate gift when he donated a portion of his liver to former Gettysburg Area School District Superintendent Larry Redding.
In his third week of recovery after a successful living-donor transplant at the UPMC Center for Liver Diseases in Pittsburgh, Redding still pauses to allow himself to catch up with his emotions when expressing gratitude.
“It makes you drop to your knees in thanks,” Redding said. “It was completely out of the blue. It’s the true definition of generosity.”
April is National Donate Life month, a coincidence that has not escaped Redding. He encouraged others to consider making a donation that could change a life, adding that 106 people are added to the nation’s organ transplant waiting list each day.
“I couldn’t be here unless there was a push to have living donors,” he said.
Redding began having bouts with liver cancer in September 2019. Doctors discovered a mass after he’d been concerned about unusual pain and fatigue following a run.
After several rounds of treatment, the tumor had disappeared in June 2020. But his doctor still recommended he have a liver transplant to ensure he would not relapse.
The average patient in need of a new liver waits one to two years if they’re reliant on deceased donors, Redding said. With that in mind, doctors encouraged him to seek out a living donor. Roughly 75% come from within the patients family, he was told, but sometimes others step up.
More than a few candidates raised their hands, but one by one they were turned away due to age or health-related concerns, Redding said.
Shellenhamer heard Redding’s story while sitting in the pews of Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in New Oxford, where they both attend church.
The next day in class, a portion of his lesson plan just happened to focus on living donors, and Shellenhamer began to feel what he described as “a calling to help.”
“It just kept coming back to me and pulling me in that direction,” he said.
To avoid promoting false hope, Shellenhamer took two days off and traveled to Pittsburgh without notifying his peer. He learned he was a match for Redding’s blood and tissue types. At 51 years old, he was just young enough to qualify.
Three weeks after Redding’s public plea, he received the call from a willing Shellhamer. Overwhelmed with emotion, Redding told friends he’d receive a transplant during a meeting for Rotary Club of Gettysburg, an organization for which he is the president.
“A person has stepped forward to give the gift of life to me. I feel very blessed that I am in this situation,” he said. “Throughout this process, I’ve been blessed with great medicine, great support and great prayers. It’s a blessing on so many levels.”
Living donors are needed for several types of patients, Redding said. A kidney, sections of a lung, intestine or pancreas, and bone marrow can be donated with limited negative impact on the donor, Redding said. Liver donation is unique because the portion that is removed from the donor will regenerate within three to six months, he said.
The procedure is safer than when performed with a deceased donor, too. The opportunity to match a donor and recipient allows for more careful planning, often leading to a shorter recovery time for the recipient, Redding said.
On April 8, after several weeks of preparation, Shellenhamer and Redding laid side by side on separate operating tables, awaiting a six-to-eight-hour procedure. When doctors can operate simultaneously, there is less room for complication, Redding said.
Shellenhamer was discharged five days after the surgery and returned to work not long after. To get to the liver, doctors had to remove his gall bladder during the surgery. He will be on a special high-protein diet until his body adjusts, he said. He’s noticed his energy levels have improved and the soreness from a seven-inch incision is slowly beginning to fade.
“Larry’s journey has been incredible. I’m just glad I was able to play a small part in helping him out.” Shellenhamer said.
Redding was discharged two days after Shellenhamer but will remain in Pittsburgh during the early stages of his recovery.
Larry’s wife, Janet Redding, has family in the area and the couple is grateful to have support in that area while learning to adjust to new lifestyles.
For the rest of his life, Larry will take antirejection medication and will make regular visits to the doctor to ensure no infections have arisen. Larry, 65, and Janet, 63, agreed the tradeoff is worth the benefit.
“We have four grandchildren and we’re looking forward to spending more time with them and our children,” Janet said. “This is giving us our opportunity to make plans for the future.”