My buddy Chuck Phelps attended Bald Eagle Area High School, which on Friday crowned its homecoming king and queen as alumni gathered to reminisce.
And he graduated from Penn State, where homecoming weekend was punctuated Friday with a parade through State College and across the campus.
But for Chuck Phelps, Friday brought a truly powerful homecoming, as he returned to his Blair County house with a new liver, and having given his family and friends renewed faith in modern medicine and the power of prayer.
He and his wife Mary Lois spent a month of up-and-down emotions in Hershey, a place known for roller-coaster rides.
His four weeks at Penn State Hershey Medical Center included three surgeries, two liver transplants and more miracles than you could count.
The day before he left the hospital he called the experience an incredible journey. No argument there.
At one point during his stay, sometime between his first and second transplant, he said we would someday write a book. There would be no shortage of material.
Saving and enhancing lives is what doctors do every day. But even Chuck’s veteran nurses and transplant team saw his story as anything but routine.
Chuck is now 50, and had his first liver transplant when in his 30s after battling digestive system troubles for years.
He knew another transplant was imminent, even before he got very sick early last month. After a stop at Mount Nittany Medical Center, he was taken to Hershey, where doctors put him on kidney dialysis and started hoping for a transplant match soon.
The match came nearly a week later, the night after an emotional day for those closest to him that included Chuck urging his daughters to have lots of babies, and telling stories of our youth that made me laugh, his mom blush and all of us pray we would have more chances to share memories.
Prayers were answered with a liver match, and surgery on a Sunday put Chuck on the road to recovery. Or so he thought.
With 48 hours of a successful transplant, his team of doctors learned the donor had been suffering from cancer, and the risk was high that it had been passed along to Chuck.
As the rest of us bounced between anger and sadness, wondering how such a mistake could happen, Chuck somehow stayed positive as his doctors put him back on the transplant list.
A few days later, he needed follow-up surgery on the area where the liver connected to his intestines, another scary moment.
Then on the morning of Oct. 1, Chuck texted me with the news that he had been told he would have another transplant that day. My wife Amy and I joined the crowd in Chuck’s hospital room that night, a gathering that included his pastor from Williamsburg. We shared hugs and watched his beloved Pittsburgh Pirates in their first playoff game in 21 years, and we waited for Chuck to be called to surgery yet again.
The transplant was set for 10 p.m., then pushed back to 11, and finally he went to the OR at 1 in the morning.
The pastor led a group prayer with Chuck before he was taken for surgery. I felt drained. Chuck was confident and ready.
Amy and I drove home, slept some, and awaited news. About 9 a.m., the family sent out a text saying the doctors told them the surgery had gone well.
The following week brought a sequence of milestones: tubes removed, liquids then solid food, and the big one from Mary Lois: “He pooped (and told everyone about it),” both a funny moment and meaningful for his recovery. It meant he could go home soon.
Early Friday afternoon came this incredible text: “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED, CHUCK IS FREE!”
They drove home to Williamsburg through heavy rains that closed many roads in south-central Pennsylvania. But arriving at the house was a sweet moment, worthy of a month in Hershey.
Late Friday evening, his message was simple: “Great day! Amen.”
Certainly Chuck and his family face more challenges ahead. He knows one-year survival rates drop for a second transplant. Who knows what two transplants in three weeks might mean?
Such thoughts are far from his mind right now, as he builds his strength and heals at home. (On Saturday, he joked: “Mary Lois is ready to throw me out again!”)
For sure, Chuck is surrounded by a remarkable family. That makes all the difference.
During his long stay in the hospital, Chuck’s name was passed along many prayer chains. I suspect God himself was surprised at the numerous requests for healing from people Chuck had never met, and never will.
The magic of modern communication kept hundreds in the loop during Chuck’s ordeal. Through Facebook, emails, texts and tweets, we stayed in touch with him and each other when we couldn’t be together.
Despite the cancer debacle, I was reminded of the incredible skill and dedication of the doctors and others who work in our hospitals. They are amazing. He will need their talents in the weeks, months and years ahead.
I was also reminded of the importance of those two words on my driver’s license:
ORGAN DONOR. Every time someone has a miracle such as this one for Chuck, others have opened their hearts during a moment of grief and offered the greatest of gifts: life.
As he said, an incredible journey.
Welcome home, Chuck.
Chip Minemyer is the executive editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4640. Follow him on Twitter @MinemyerChip.