As a winter storm was striking the Philadelphia region, Robert L. Johnson Jr. was being prepped for liver transplant surgery at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. Just then, the transplant team carrying his new liver hit a slick on-ramp to the Pennsylvania Turnpike in York County and a tire broke off.
What Johnson had no way of knowing as he drifted off to sleep for surgery on Jan. 7, 2017, was that it would take not only his transplant team but also two police officers to save his life. The story of the first officer — who dropped everything to drive the stranded doctors 100 miles in a snowstorm — came to light soon after his surgery.
But how another officer gave even more to save him is something Johnson has just learned.
He is sharing his story for the first time to help others waiting for organs, and to encourage people to fill out an organ donor card.
A rapid decline
Johnson’s liver disease came on quickly, he said.
In April 2015, the product salesman wasn’t feeling well. On the way home from work, he stopped at an urgent care center in Bucks County, where he lived at the time, to see a doctor for what he thought was a bad cold. It referred him to Doylestown Hospital, where he was quickly referred to Jefferson, he said.
“I was so full of fluid, I had symptoms of congestive heart failure,” said Johnson, 63. Doctors said his liver was compromised, and he was diagnosed with NASH, or nonalcoholic steatohepatitis.
The disease is the more serious form of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), in which excess fat builds up in the organ. Between 30 percent and 40 percent of adults and about 10 percent of children in the United States have this condition, which has grown along with obesity rates, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. About 20 percent of people with that condition will develop NASH, which can lead to cirrhosis and eventually organ failure.
At 6-foot-2, Johnson weighed about 256 pounds. He was obese by body mass index (BMI) standards and also had Type II diabetes — two conditions that put him at higher risk for NASH.
A risk factor that he — and a growing number of NASH patients — didn’t have was alcoholism.
“I was lucky if I drank a case of beer a year,” he said, describing the next two years as a blur of hospitalizations and medical procedures that aimed to keep his liver working.
Snowy, icy roads
On Feb. 4, 2016, Johnson was placed on the transplant list. In the months that followed, there were five calls from his transplant coordinator that didn’t pan out.
On Jan. 6, 2017, he received one more call.
That day, East Cocalico Township Police Sgt. Darrick Kepley was in his cruiser when he saw a car stuck on an on-ramp to the turnpike and stopped.
It was Johnson’s transplant team from Jefferson, and they had a human liver in a box. They had been trying desperately to find an ambulance to get them to Philadelphia while the organ was still viable for transplant — a window that lasts just 24 hours from when it is recovered from the donor, according to Jefferson.
Kepley knew they had to get going quickly. He also knew an ambulance couldn’t be found in time.
The surgeon and resident — along with the liver — piled into Kepley’s Ford Interceptor, and they took off with lights and sirens blaring for the more-than-100-mile journey on snowy, icy, roads.
Kepley’s adventure made headlines. A few days later, he saw a post on a law enforcement website from an officer’s widow about her husband’s “last ride in a police car.”
He reached out to her.
William Thomas Carbone, 70, of Waynesboro, Pa., was an officer with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington who retired in 1995, his wife, Janet, said from her Pittsburgh home.
“He had a tremendously big heart, and he would do anything for anyone,” she said. The two had been married for 39 years when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. “Billy” Carbone was a devout Catholic and a Vietnam veteran who devoted his live to service, she said.
When they moved to Pennsylvania and got new driver’s licenses, she said, they both checked the box for organ donation. They didn’t talk about it — it was just a given that they would do it, she said.
“We were a believer in that if you had something someone else could use, let them have it,” Carbone said. In addition to her husband’s liver, his lungs, kidneys, corneas, and some skin tissue were also harvested, she said.
It gave the family great comfort to know that another officer stepped up to make the drive, she said.
Kepley said he attended Carbone’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery a few months later, he said.
“It was an honor to be there for that,” Kepley said. The family presented him with a medal from the department where Carbone had worked.
Kepley also was honored at a Phillies game – he is a huge fan – and he stopped by Jefferson with whoopie pies to give to the nurses, he said.
And he recently became chief of his 15-officer department.
The road to recovery
Johnson spent 19 days in the hospital after his successful liver transplant. He was one of the 8,082 people across the U.S. who got a new liver last year, according to United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit in charge of managing the nation’s organ transplant system.
While in recovery, a friend sent Johnson a link to a story about Kepley’s snowy ride. Johnson’s surgeon confirmed that it had been his new liver in the box.
Johnson contacted Kepley to thank him for going well beyond the call of duty, rather than simply calling for a tow truck.
“He didn’t have to do what he did, but he did it anyway,” said Johnson.
As of the latest count, 114,845 people in the U.S. are waiting for transplants. Of those, 13,867 need a new liver.
Johnson has had some minor setbacks as his body adjusts to the 11 medications he must take to fend off organ rejection but feels well overall. He is now 66 pounds lighter and no longer needs medicine for diabetes, he said.
Now a resident of Hawley, Wayne County, Johnson can no longer work and relies on Medicare and Social Security Disability. A friend has set up a GoFundMe page to help Johnson with extra medical expenses.
An avid bluegrass music fan, Johnson is busy making plans to attend his favorite festivals this summer.
“Life is sweeter now,” he said while waiting for a routine appointment at Jefferson last week. “I’m alive, and I wasn’t going to be a year ago this time.”