Harris starts new year with new liver, kidney

Tracy Harris got a new liver and a new kidney to start the new year.

So 2022 will mark the start of a new life — literally — for the Little Rock golfer, a member of the Arkansas Golf Hall of Fame.

Harris, above, who has never drunk, smoked or done drugs, was diagnosed in 2021 with cirrhosis of the liver as a result of NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis), a type of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease that led to the need for the double transplant.

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He was the Arkansas State Golf Association’s Amateur Player of the Year in 1997, Mid-Senior Player of the Year in 2011, ‘12, ‘14 and ‘16 and Senior Player of the Year in 2018. Other career highlights include state titles for amateur, mid-amateur, mid-senior, public links and state four-ball; Mid-South 4-ball in Laurel, Miss.; Panamanian International Amateur; three USGA state team competitions and two International Team Amateur events in Lima, Peru.

He was to have been inducted into the Arkansas Golf Hall of Fame in 2020, but the ceremony has been postponed twice now because of the covid-19 pandemic.

“I’m doing good,” Harris, 58, told an old friend last week, a few days after his return home following his New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day surgeries at UAMS. “I’m still a little weak, but I’m gradually getting stronger, and the doctor (Dr. Katherine Rude) said my surgeon said my liver was working great. It takes your kidney a little longer to wake up and get going, but my kidney’s doing great. My numbers are great. The surgeon (Dr. Emmanouil Giorgakis) called me and said from his end of it, he was very happy.”

Many, many others are also happy with the result.

Harris has been one of the state’s most popular amateur golfers for decades. A Go Fund Me to support his first few weeks at home following his discharge from the hospital has raised nearly $27,000 from more than 100 donors.

This reporter covered golf for the old Arkansas Gazette from 1985 until the newspaper died in 1991 and later as a freelance writer for the Conway Log Cabin Democrat and the now closed North Little Rock Times and Maumelle Monitor. When she checked in with her old friend last summer following the diagnosis that indicated the need for a transplant, he told her what he needed from friends were thoughts and prayers.

“And if people could be organ donors, that would be great and help save somebody’s life,” he said then.

With good health insurance through ARHOME, the state’s latest version of the federal Affordable Care Act, he specifically said he didn’t need or want any money.

But Robert Neighbors, his friend and fellow golfer, knew otherwise and set up the fundraiser to support Harris in his first weeks home from UAMS.

“I was seeing him in the hospital nearly every day, and I saw how much (the surgeries) took out of him,” Neighbors said. “We knew it was going to be more than we could handle for him daily for a while, and we really wanted the best for him. We wanted to find 24-hour care for him, and that wasn’t going to be cheap.”

So even though Harris didn’t want to ask for help, his friends took charge. Jay Fox, executive director of the ASGA, and Neighbors collaborated to get the Go Fund Me started.

“It grew really quick,” Neighbors said. “I asked Jay to share it to his Facebook page, and he tagged a group of us. Tracy’s friends jumped on it and gave and gave and gave.”

The original goal was $10,000. That was shortly surpassed, so it was upped to $20,000.

“We received $20,000 in right at 24 hours,” Neighbors said. “It was incredible to watch. My email was blowing up with alerts. Tracy has good health insurance, and that is certainly helping, but his friends have stepped up in a huge way.”

As of Monday, 123 donors had contributed $26,998.

“I talked to him about how much and the different people that donated, and he was really blown away,” Neighbors said. “It’s really been incredible to see how many people would give of their own money for him.”

When Harris declined any such effort prior to the surgery, he told Neighbors that people had their own bills to pay and kids to take care of, so he was shocked as he realized the depth of generosity.

“(Neighbors) told me about it at the hospital one day, and I said, ‘You did what?’ And I was just sitting there in my room one night, looking at the list (of donors), and I just started crying,” Harris said.

“Man alive — they wanted to do that for me? It was overwhelming. I wish I could thank each one of them individually. I can’t thank them enough. It was really something. I couldn’t believe it.”

He choked up as he recalled the generosity of so many.

“I couldn’t have done all this without Robert,” he said. “He’s been a great friend. And my boss (Jim Hill of Hill Logistics) has been incredible, probably the best boss I’ve ever had. He’s a godsend.”

***

According to www.mayoclinic.org, about 8,000 liver transplants were performed in the U.S. in 2017. At the same time, approximately 11,500 people were registered on the waiting list.

After a barrage of tests last fall, Harris made it to that list, necessitating that he be on call 24/7 whenever compatible cadaver organs became available.

The first call came on Dec. 30 as he was driving down Interstate 630 in Little Rock. He would be the standby recipient for a liver and kidney.

“Like if the first person had covid and didn’t know it, or maybe had an infection and didn’t know it — stuff like that,” Harris said, explaining the standby process. 

So he went to UAMS, checked in and was prepped for surgery.

“Then we found out the person in front of me took it,” he said. “So they unhooked me and I came home.”

But about 7:45 a.m. the next day — New Year’s Eve — his phone rang again. This time, he would be the primary recipient.

“So I got up and went to the hospital, and they prepped me,” he said. “About 4 p.m. they started operating.”

The liver procedure was first up. 

“They got through about 10 or 11 that night, and they let my body rest for four or five hours and then went back in the next morning (New Year’s Day) for the kidney,” he said. “I woke up in ICU that afternoon.”

He spent a week in intensive care and a second week on the transplant floor, a little longer than expected.

“It wasn’t anything life-threatening, but those first two weeks were pretty tough, especially that first week in ICU,” he said.

He knows nothing about his donor or donors.

“It could’ve been the same donor (for the liver and the kidney), or it could not have been,” he said. “They don’t let you know much about that. I heard you can find out later, and I’d like to know and maybe go and meet (the donor family) if they were close by.”

***

Since last summer he’s lost 60 pounds. His appetite, not surprisingly, took a big hit following the transplants, but he said it had slowly improved.

“I guess you could say it’s the second half of my life,” he said. “I was very fortunate; I got a new lease on life. I’ve just got to watch what I do from here on out. I’ll be on anti-rejection medicine the rest of my life, along with a bunch of other medicine. That’ll gradually get better, they said.”

So what has he learned over the last year?

“Those golf shots are not as important as you think they are,” he said. “You’ve seen me get mad out there. I’m not doing that anymore. It’s not that important. So you miss a three-foot putt — who gives a crap? Yeah, you want to make it, but I’m alive, too.

“There’s a lot of things in this world that you think are important, and they really aren’t. I’ve tried to, for lack of a better word, chill out, not be so tense. I think I’m doing better at that.”

In the months before the transplant, when he didn’t know when or if donor organs might become available, he asked his doctor what would happen if they didn’t:

“‘If we don’t find (a liver and kidney), am I going to die?’”

Not surprisingly, since the transplants he’s begun looking at things differently.

“I don’t think I’ll take things quite as seriously as I used to,” he said. “Because I’m alive.”

He last played golf in May but said he wouldn’t rush to get back to the course. Whenever he does, he’ll have to wear long sleeves, wide-brimmed hats and lots of sunscreen because the anti-rejection medicines could cause skin cancer.

“I guess we’ll find out how bad I want to play,” he said. “But that’s OK. It’s a small price to pay.”

Neighbors agreed his friend was continuing to do well.

“He just needs to keep pushing himself to do as the doctors tell him to, and he will be back on the golf course again,” he said.

***

Harris said UAMS officials told him they do about 50 liver and 200 kidney transplants a year.

“I would recommend UAMS to anybody,” he said. “This is the place to be. I’ll never go anyplace else. They’re just great people over there. They stay on top of you, and they’re wonderful. They saved my life.”

On that phone call last week, the old friend mentioned how much better he sounded than he had on Christmas Eve.

“Everybody says I sound like my old self,” he said. “That’s good. That’s a start.”

Indeed. It’s the start of the rest of his life.