Steven Robinson was on a family trip to Detroit when he realized he lived close to Richard Koonce, his old friend, and roommate who he had not seen in the past 21 years.

Koonce invited Robinson and his family to his home, but Robinson was stunned by Koonce’s dramatic weight loss.

Robinson asked Koonce: “Hey, man. What’s going on? You OK?”
Koonce was not OK.

It was then that Robinson learned Koonce has been battling a rare liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC, since 2019.
PSC is a chronic disease that causes scarring within the bile ducts that can result in infections, tumors, and severe liver failure.

“I always had love for the brother. And I could see something was wrong. I could see it in his eyes.” Robinson said.

Act of kindness: Former college roommate to donate part of his liver to save his friend
Richard Koonce and Steven Robinson.
Courtesy Richard Koonce

This wasn’t something he had planned to tell Robinson. But since he asked, he explained that he had tried many treatments without success and was looking for a living donor for transplant.

One of the unique characteristics of the organ liver is that it contains cells that can grow and regenerate, enabling a donor to donate a portion of his liver to a person in need, while the donor’s liver grows back as well.

Robinson did not hesitate after knowing his old friend needed help.

“Man, I’ve got to do something,” Koonce recalled Robinson saying.

Robinson offered to donate a piece of his liver to save the life of his friend.
And he was a match with the same blood type.

His wife, Marion, quickly stepped up to be the donor, as did his daughter, Morgan. But Robinson had the same O+ blood type and was a better physical match.

Robinson spoke to his wife, Natalie, about it on the ride home to Teaneck, New Jersey, and she, without hesitation, supported the idea. Each of their three children gave Dad a thumbs up for helping his friend after discussing the scenario with them.

“I didn’t know that the liver could grow back, regenerate,” Natalie Robinson said. “So, for me, after learning that, there was no question. ‘You have to do this’ because if he didn’t and something happened to Richard, Steven would be devastated. To see this happen, especially with those two because they have such history, is special. Stephen is very happy that he can help. And so is our family.”

Koonce said he was sitting in church at a funeral when Robinson called and then texted him to tell him the results showed he was a strong candidate, and that he was officially committed to be the donor.

He showed his phone to his wife, Marion, to read the message.
“She cried,” Koonce said. “I hate what this has put her through. But she and my daughters have been steadying forces.”

The life-saving operation was performed on Valentine’s Day at a Cleveland hospital. Robinson will be in recovery for six to eight weeks. For Koonce, it will take about six months.

Specialists caution that as with any surgery of this magnitude, complications could arise, especially on the receiver’s end. Still, “there is a very high success rate for this surgery,” Scantlebury, who has performed more than 2,000 transplants, said. “We usually tell people, ‘Your risk of dying is no greater than the standard in life.”

“We are leaving that to God,” Robinson said.

“I am so truly grateful for the gift of life that God has offered through my friend, Steve Robinson, who decided almost within the very minute that he learned of my disease to step up and do whatever he could to help me,” Koonce said.

Koonce still marvels at his friend’s gesture and faith.

“I’m like, ‘Wow. This brother has love for me,’ When I think about it, it’s a hell of a thing to do,” he said. “But if the situation were reversed, I’d be like, ‘Is this what it takes for you to live longer? Man, let me check to see if I’m a good match.’ I really would. I would do the same thing for him.”

 

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