A secret worth keeping
Fred Pierce and Jerry Tufly have done so many things together over the past 35 years.
The Grand Valley residents spent Thanksgivings together, they cut Christmas trees together. Fred hauled some of Jerry’s trees for him, the years he had a broken arm or a herniated disc, and they were the big, Griswold-type of trees.
They ate lunch every day together for a while, eating Wendy’s double cheeseburgers before their metabolisms caught up with them. They could talk for hours driving anywhere, about almost anything.
And it looks like they’re going to be doing one more important thing together.
It’s all because Jerry went behind Fred’s back and hid what he was doing. He deceived and angered his friend.
But it’s a lie that might save Fred’s life.
It started in July 2015, when Fred was diagnosed with liver disease. Though he hadn’t had a drink in almost a decade, he was facing cirrhosis of the liver and the prognosis was grim. He was sick, but not sick enough to get priority on a transplant list, and he would likely be too sick to recover from a transplant by the time he reached the top of the list.
Fred’s sister connected him with a clinical study at the Mayo Clinic, and he was accepted as one of six patients. But doctors advised him that his best chance of survival was to find a living donor before he got too sick, when it would be too late.
By spring, Fred accepted that he was probably going to die of the same disease that claimed his mother’s life. He had lost more than 80 pounds, was wasting away and could barely walk outside to his truck.
“Jerry kept bugging me about donors,” he said. “And I was like, dude, I’m fine.”
Since Fred wouldn’t give him any information, Jerry took it upon himself and contacted the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He didn’t tell Fred.
Jerry filled out a questionnaire for living donors and sent it back, and the clinic sent him blood tests to have drawn. After sending those back, Jerry learned that he and Fred had the same blood type, the first hurdle in becoming a potential donor.
The next step was going to Mayo Clinic and undergoing extensive testing, and Jerry and his wife, Rochelle, decided to take a vacation and go to Rochester.
Jerry told Fred he was going on vacation, and didn’t mention the clinic or the real reason for the trip. Fred assembled a list of fun things and brochures of attractions to do in the area, since he’d been spending a lot of time there, but Jerry ignored him.
“He pissed me off,” Fred said.
Jerry was poked, prodded and scanned. Doctors examined his liver to see if its size would be appropriate for Fred, to map out the bile ducts and blood vessels, and to see if the organ could be safely divided in half.
At the clinic, Jerry passed all the tests, except one.
He had kept his visit a secret from Fred. And when the doctors told him he had to tell Fred if he wanted to give him part of his liver, Jerry asked if he could do it anonymously.
Two weeks after Jerry’s “vacation” to Rochester, he was officially approved as Fred’s donor, and he had to confess what he had done.
He and Fred met for lunch, and Jerry told Fred he’d been to the Mayo Clinic, and had undergone extensive testing.
“Are you OK? What’s wrong?” Fred asked.
“I don’t know how to say it, so I’ll just say it. I’m a direct match and I want to give you half my liver,” Jerry blurted out.
Fred burst into tears in the restaurant.
“I lost it,” he said. “There’s no words for it, what he’d done.”
The two are scheduled for surgery at Mayo Clinic next month.
Jerry will go into surgery first, and then Fred will be prepped to receive the transplant. They joke that it will be like a quarterback hurling a football across the hallway to the operating room.
They know that Jerry will feel awful after the surgery, and Fred will likely feel better immediately. But it won’t last long — Jerry’s liver will regenerate within a month, doctors said.
Jerry, who works for Basic Energy Services and is one of the owners of Suds Bros. Brewery in Fruita, will take some time off work for recovery, and said his employers have been incredibly supportive about the transplant.
He’s focused on staying healthy, since he’s the custodian of Fred’s future organ now.
“Fred, you don’t know how hard it is, taking care of OUR liver,” he jokes.
Fred and his wife, Gretchen, can’t express how grateful they are to the Tuflys for this sacrifice. They always knew Jerry would help them, but giving him part of an organ is a gift they never would have fathomed. The path forward for Fred, the possibility of more years together, is a gift they cannot repay.
These two have been through harder times than this, like when Fred called Jerry years ago to tell him he would be going away for a while. He was crying so hard Jerry could barely understand him, and he thought someone had died.
Fred was going to rehab to get help for his alcoholism. He wouldn’t be able to talk to Jerry for 28 days.
But when the time was up, Fred stayed away for about two years. It nearly broke Jerry’s heart.
Jerry, who is what Fred calls a “normie” because he can drink alcohol without addiction problems, didn’t know that the beers he and Fred had bonded over were the reason Fred was staying away.
He associated Jerry with drinking and didn’t think he could separate his friendship from his alcoholism.
Jerry knows now that Fred had to get strong enough to know that their friendship wasn’t based on alcohol, and they can get together for coffee or root beer or just because.
This spring, Fred will celebrate 11 years of sobriety, with his friend who gave him a future. He’s forgiven Jerry for his renegade mission to become his living donor, going behind his back and keeping secrets.
Jerry said deciding to go to Mayo Clinic and get tested as a living donor was an answer to his own prayers.
“It’s not about you. It’s about what you can do for others,” he said. “And it was clear to me at that moment that it was what I should do.”
“You don’t have to be family to do this,” Jerry said. “I feel honored and blessed to do this for my friend.”