Mission Support Blog

The Gift of Life: An Organ Transplant Recipient's Story



April is “National Donate Life Month,” an observance focusing national attention on the need and importance of organ, eye, and tissue donation. It also serves as a time to celebrate those who have saved lives through the gift of donation.

For those of us who consider ourselves relatively healthy, feeling a little sore or run down, or just “off” doesn’t immediately send us to the doctor. We get up, we go to work, we tend to our homes and families, and just…get on with it.
Ross Holman, a civilian employee in the Coast Guard’s security center, was doing just that. He also found some time to travel. It was during a trip in May 2023 that his wife and daughters started noticing that his feet and ankles were swollen.
Holman had noticed it too, but figured it wasn’t a big deal. “I’ve been outside a lot, maybe I’m not drinking enough water,” he told his family.
In July, he took a trip to Montana and went hiking. The swelling returned, but this time, it was so bad it made it hard to walk. “I knew something was wrong,” Holman said. “But I thought ‘I’ll just play it off’.” This time, his family also noticed that the color of his skin seemed a little off. But again, he’d been spending time outside, and it seemed plausible that he’d gotten a bit of a tan.
Unfortunately, what his family saw wasn’t a tan – it was jaundice (a yellowing of the skin or whites of the eyes). Come August, Holman was getting absolutely exhausted during the day – he found it hard even to stay awake at work. He also had fluid building up in his abdomen, though he didn’t know that yet. “I was in denial, I guess,” he said. Ross Holman is a stalwart guy. A hard-working, determined, Air Force veteran who repeatedly said he didn’t tell anyone how terrible he felt because he “didn’t want to burden anyone with it.”
In October, Holman finally sought medical treatment. He got an MRI scan, and picked up immediately from the technician that something wasn’t right. After the scan, the tech rushed him out the door and told him someone would call with the results. “That’s when I knew something wasn’t right,” he said.
After the scan and some bloodwork, Holman got the call none of us want to get from a doctor, who said, “I need you to come in as soon as you can.”
That’s when Holman finally found out what had been making him so sick for all those months. “They told me my liver had taken a ginormous turn for the worse since my routine checks in January,” said Holman, “and that my liver would need to be replaced soon.”
While his doctors worked furiously to set up all the tests and appointments needed to get Holman on the list for an organ transplant, he was wrestling with the emotional impact of the news. “I was thinking ‘How do I tell my wife? How do I tell my daughters? How do I tell work?’” said Holman.
As hard as it was to tell everyone about such an overwhelming situation, Holman notes that his Coast Guard colleagues and supervisors were very supportive once he shared the information. One effect of his failing liver was sharp variations in his blood sugar, making him susceptible to cold and feeling foggy and faint. His coworkers, he said, were careful to look out for him. “They watched me like a hawk,” he said. “They checked on me and always made sure I had snacks if needed, and that I was feeling ok.”
In the meantime, he kept to a strict low sodium, low sugar diet and consumed no alcohol. He also quit smoking – all in the service of keeping himself as healthy as he could. But as the fall months wore on, the situation became increasingly dire. After Thanksgiving, a doctor told him frankly: “Your liver is very sick.” Holman emotionally recalled the doctor’s words: “He said ‘within a year, things could be really, really bad for you. You need a new liver or everything will shut down.’”
Holman was officially put on the list for a liver transplant shortly before Christmas of 2023. He kept his expectations in check, knowing that a place on the list still meant he’d have a months-long wait ahead of him – particularly since he has a somewhat rare blood type. He continued trying to take good care of himself, spent time with his family, kept his phone nearby and…waited.
But, on Christmas morning, about the time his family had finished opening gifts, Ross Holman’s phone unexpectedly rang. “I didn’t recognize the number, but something in the back of my mind said ‘answer it,’” he said. That’s when he heard the words “I’m from the Transplant Service – I understand you’re waiting for a liver?” 
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus – and he brought Ross Holman a liver.
From there it was a mad scramble to get to Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital in Richmond, Va., where the transplant would take place.
At 7:30 a.m. the day after Christmas 2023, Holman was getting prepped to receive his new liver. In the process, he learned that an apparent tradition in the world of organ transplantation was to give the new organ a name. Thus, that day, his body welcomed “Chewy,” the liver.
Holman took the major surgery well, and he and Chewy were swiftly on the road to recovery. That road is a long one, meaning it could take close to a year before he fully feels like himself again, but in the meantime, his Coast Guard family has his back. His colleagues were quick to check in on him post-surgery and let him know they had everything covered.
And they meant it.
When some of his Coast Guard member coworkers found out his fence had blown down in a storm while he was recovering in the hospital, they hatched a plan to fix it. “Four Coasties showed up and fixed the whole thing,” said Holman. “They removed the old fence, got new lumber, sunk posts, came back and put up pickets, everything.” He offered them reimbursement for the effort. They turned him down.
Nowadays, Ross Holman is back to working a few days a week from home. So why share such a personal story? Why recount the stress and strain and doctor’s appointments? Because, Holman said:  “I know somebody else will be told they need this. I want to let people know to keep the faith. It’s not a death sentence. Follow your doctor’s plan, diet, exercise…just don’t think ‘oh, I need a new organ, I’m a goner.’ Stay focused and create a support network.”

The support network, Holman notes, is key. “I’m doing so well because of the great support I got. People are naturally going to support you – don’t think you’ll be a burden on them. People are going to step up and be supportive of you no matter what you need. That’s what my Coast Guard family did for me.”
The first twelve months are key in the recovery process for a transplant patient, so Holman is taking care to make sure he keeps up healthy habits and makes all his appointments. The 12-month mark is also when his transplant team will, with his permission, share his information with the family of the person who donated the liver. If they’re open to it, he’d like to meet them.
“I look forward to meeting them and thanking them for their loved one giving me a second chance in life.”

You can learn more about organ donation by visiting the Health Resources & Services Administration’s (HRSA) organdonor.gov.

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