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Paying it forward

Thirty years after surviving a car accident, an artist donates his liver to save a stranger

A car accident tossed 16-year-old Ken Schuler through a windshield and into the road, blood flowing from his jugular vein.

Within moments, a nearby state trooper raced to clamp his hands on Schuler’s neck to stop the bleeding. Schuler credits the move for saving his life.

Nearly 30 years after that accident, Schuler took quick action himself after watching a news story about a woman with his blood type, B positive, who had a hepatitis C virus and needed a liver transplant.

“Her dad was crying and really emotional and I just thought, ‘My golly, how could anybody not respond to something like that?’” he said.

Schuler connected with the woman's family and offered to donate a portion of his own liver. That year — 1999 — he became the first person in the world to donate his liver to a stranger.

Viable candidate

After contacting recipient Deborah Parker’s family, Schuler traveled from his home in Linville, Va., to the VCU Medical Center for medical and psychological tests.

He wasn’t afraid of the medical tests and needles, having donated more than 25 gallons of blood since his teenage years, but said the litany of psychological tests frustrated him.

“The staff later told me it was because I was the first stranger to ever step forward as a live liver donor,” he said. “They wanted to try to find out what made me tick and to make sure I wasn’t completely crazy.”

The final step of testing, a liver biopsy, found him to be a viable candidate. Elated, Schuler immediately called Parker with the news.

‘Complete flip-flop’

Schuler, a pencil artist, sequestered himself at home in the weeks leading to surgery to make sure he didn’t catch a cold or get sick. On the big day in April 1999, he was wheeled into surgery at about 4 a.m. for a 15-hour operation to remove part of his liver for transplantation to Parker.

“The next day I felt worse than I’d ever felt in my life, and Deborah felt the best she had in years,” Schuler said. “It was a complete flip-flop.”

Overall, it took about two months to regain regular function and four to be "anywhere near normal," Schuler said.

He and Parker spoke regularly after the transplant, becoming “sort of like brother and sister,” he said. She died in 2007 from other medical conditions, but he’s still in touch with some of her family members.

No regrets

Schuler, 61, said he doesn’t get upset about the small things anymore because he’s been with people who need a transplant and are just hoping to live another week. He didn't regret his donation even when he experienced pain, he said.

“I knew when I did it there was no looking back, and I didn't look back,” he said. “I wouldn’t take $10 million to give up the experience.”