Doctor driven by his chance at
Survival after 3 liver
transplants, coma inspires him to help others
By Brian Joseph
The Desert Sun, Palm Springs, CA
September 2, 2003
Dr. Richard Darling likes to visit his grave. The headstone
etched with his name is a monument to the hope he preaches.
He wrote a book about his experiences in a coma.
"I never want to forget where I’ve been or what I’ve been
through so I can take care of these patients," he said. "This
is what drives me."
The dentist from Palm Desert was supposed to have died years
ago, but through the grace of God -- and three liver
transplants -- he’s survived.
He’s grateful for the second chance. And to show it, he’s
become an advocate and a friend for patients with liver
He founded a support group for patients suffering with
Hepatitis C or who are in need of a liver transplant.
He formed a group lobbying to change the way medical
research is funded.
In August, the National Association of Social Workers named
Darling, 56, the 2003 National Public Citizen of the Year.
He said he hopes to use his fame to teach others about the
importance of being an organ donor.
"He’s just such an inspiration," said 37-year-old Brian van
der Wees. Darling helped van der Wees get on a waiting list
for a liver when van der Wees was close to dying from
cirrhosis of the liver.
"Without him I wouldn’t be alive today," van der Wees said. "…
I just love the man."
About 30 years ago, when he was still in dental school, a
bloody car accident put Darling in the hospital. With his legs
hemorrhaging and his blood pressure dropping, doctors gave him
a transfusion. The blood was tainted with Hepatitis C, Darling
"That was before there was a test for Hepatitis C," he said.
"In fact, in those days, it wasn’t called Hepatitis C. It was
called Non-A, Non-B."
But he didn’t know about all that at the time. It wasn’t until
the early 1990s when he was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. His
condition worsened: Hepatitis C begot cirrhosis of the liver.
Cirrhosis led to cancer.
By 1998, he was too weak to continue dentistry. The only
available treatment wasn’t working, and the federal government
forbid cancer patients to receive transplants, so he retired
and prepared to die. He bought a plot and a gravestone in
Then the government changed the rules and a donor liver became
available. He had his first transplant in October 1998. The
liver lasted him about a week.
The liver failing, Darling slipped into a coma.
"I remember (my wife) telling me, ‘We’re going to get you
through this,’ " Darling said. "Then I slipped away into the
life inside my coma."
A second liver transplant brought him out of the coma. That
liver lasted about three years. In 2001, he had a third
transplant. He’s been healthy, and cancer free ever since.
Darling later wrote a book about his experiences inside his
coma called "ComaLife: What the Hell is Going on Here." In it
he tells of the things real and imagined he saw: a "guardian
angel" tabby cat curled on the edge of his bed, the nurses and
doctors in his hospital room, Dennis Rodman.
"My life in a coma was a non-sensory place," Darling said. "I
had no pain. I had no stress. That was one of the reasons I
wrote ‘ComaLife,’ to educate families that we are OK in our
His odyssey has made him an expert on the plight of patients.
Last year he founded a group that’s lobbying the National of
Institutes of Health to distribute research funds more equally
Called The FAIR Foundation, its mission is to have a disease's
mortality rate given emphasis when determining allocations,
and then other factors will insure that diseases that kill few
but cause great suffering will also receive increased funding.
"FAIR" is an acronym for "Fair Allocations in Research."
Darling says AIDS receives the most funds but doesn’t kill the
most Americans. Heart disease does.
Today, he spends his days counseling liver disease patients.
He formed the Coachella Valley Hepatitis C, Liver Disease and
Transplant Support Group, where area residents gather twice monthly to talk about their health and ask Darling
questions about medical tests, procedures or where to find
"He’s been through it all, so he knows what he’s talking
about," said 43-year-old Edna Rodriguez, who’s had Hepatitis C
for 15 years. She’s only attended two group sessions, but she
says she’s hooked.
"I really enjoyed listening to him talk," she said. "You see
how close he is to the others. He really cares."
Once or twice a week, Darling dispenses "hope" while touring the transplant ward at
Loma Linda University Medical Center, where he tells patients
the importance of staying optimistic.
He said: "The mantra is, ‘If Dr. Darling did it, so can