By Crystal Hayduk
A young person is alive right now because Eric Robinson gave part of his liver in an “altruistic donation” on July 26 at University Hospital (Michigan Medicine).
This is the type of donation where neither the donor nor the recipient knows who the other is until both parties are completely recovered from surgery—and even then, either side may choose to remain anonymous.
Robinson plans to let the recipient’s family reach out first.
“I don’t really need to meet the recipient,” he said. “If they want to meet me, I’ll meet them, but I don’t feel a huge need to.”
Robinson, who is in his 20th year with Chelsea, teaches fourth grade at South Meadows Elementary, and previously taught early elementary pupils at North Creek. He is loved by students and teachers for his boundless energy and positive attitude.
In addition, he is also known by the community as the guitarist and vocalist in the popular music group, North Creek Fiddlers. He is married to Claire, and they have a 13-year-old son, Alex.
Robinson’s journey to the operating room took about two years from the first time he considered donating an organ. “I didn’t know anything about liver donation when I read about a man who needed one, but I told Claire I wanted to do it,” said Robinson. “I’m healthy, my blood type is O negative [universal donor], I’m in a spot in my life where I can take time off work if needed, and I have resources.”
The process to become eligible to donate went on for months, with MRIs, blood tests, assessments by social workers—all to determine his physical and mental ability to donate and his supports and resources.
Robinson explained that donating can’t have adverse effects on your life—other than normal recovery from surgery. “They are comprehensive to make sure it’s okay,” he said.
Claire said the social worker also asked her about the family’s backup plans and level of support. As she listed their resources, the social worker asked for more. “Finally, the light bulb went on. I said, ‘You know Eric is an elementary school teacher. Do you know elementary school teachers? They will do anything. I guarantee whatever I ask for, they will do.’”
Ultimately, Robinson wasn’t a match for the intended recipient, but he asked to remain on the donor list. With the location of major blood vessels in his liver, doctors determined the best match would be a pediatric patient. All he had to do was wait for a call.
After nine months of silence, the call came in July.
Team Robinson agreed wholeheartedly.
Dr. Christopher Sonnenday removed 30% of Robinson’s liver at University Hospital, then it was quickly transported to an operating room at Mott Children’s Hospital where the recipient was ready and waiting for their new liver.
As if the match and two surgeries aren’t miraculous enough, the donor’s remaining liver regenerates and the liver in the recipient grows to fill the space. “The cells of the liver know to grow until they touch the next structure,” said Claire.
Following the surgery, Robinson began his recovery in the intensive care unit, and went home five days later. He has experienced an emotional and physical toll since the surgery. “They said it could be weeks or months before I feel good again,” he said. “The effects felt by people who have chronic or acute illnesses can’t be overstated. This was worth doing. I pushed myself through it and it’s okay that it wasn’t easy.”
“At that same time, if someone asked me if they should do it, I would tell them to be ready for the risks involved and that it’s hard to do. Leading up to it you have doubts that creep in. Knowing you are saving someone else’s life did it for me. … I’m using the gifts I’ve been given to help somebody else.”
Although any second thoughts Robinson may have had prior to surgery were quelled by his understanding of the great need, Claire’s biggest concern was whether her husband could follow post-op instructions for two months. In addition to not driving for two weeks, he can’t lift more than ten pounds during his recovery, and his movement is restricted due to the size of the incision in his abdominal wall.
Robinson’s classroom was completely torn up as a result of renovations at South Meadows this summer. But true to Claire’s prediction, volunteers lined up to help put everything in place.
By the time school starts, Robinson expects to feel just well enough that he may accidentally overdo it, but Claire fears the risk of complications if he does. “I’m going to make him a t-shirt that says, ‘Don’t let me lift anything,’” said Claire. “And then I’m going to his open house to tell all the kids and their parents that it’s their job to make sure he doesn’t lift anything more than 10 pounds. Kids like to have a job.”
Robinson said his principal, Stacie Battaglia, has been “awesome and supportive,” as he knew she would because “…she always puts people first.”
Battaglia and her colleagues are proud of Robinson. “He has been beyond excited about this opportunity to help another human. All of us here at South have loved supporting him through the ups and downs of finally being given the opportunity to do so. Eric is a ‘relationships’ teacher, so this choice has really come as no surprise. He truly cares about other people and goes out of his way to show it. We look forward to welcoming him back with open and supportive arms. We will pull together as a staff to assure his classroom gets put back together as we know he will still be taking good care of himself, even on opening day.”
Robinson is thankful for the tremendous support of his family and friends. “This puts a different perspective on things,” he said. He has a new appreciation for life, the sun on his face, health, and relationships. “I wish everyone could experience something that brings out a different part of you—gratitude, resolve, a strength you didn’t know you had.”
[For more information about Eric Robinson, read this focus on teachers from 2014. Michigan Medicine was unable to respond to Chelsea Update’s inquiries about liver donation by press time. Stay tuned for a follow-up article in early September.]