Doctor driven by his chance at life

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.

"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 disease:

  • He wrote a book about his experiences in a coma.
  • 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 said.

    "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 anticipation.

    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 coma."

    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 among diseases.

    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 good doctors.

    "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 I.’"

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