Friday, August 1, 2008

Spotlight: Eric Harrison - Lucky Man

By Joe Hessert
Staff Columnist

As a firefighter, Eric Harrison knows about saving lives. In July of 2006 he learned what it was like to have his saved by a stranger – a young man who he’ll never have the opportunity to thank.
“All I know is that he was a kid who died in a motorcycle accident,” said Harrison of the young man who donated the liver and kidney he received two years ago. “And that I’m lucky to be here.”
Eric wrote a letter to the donor’s family to let them know who he was and to tell them how sorry he was for their loss. “They had to make this unbelievably generous decision on the worst day of their lives,” he said. “My heart goes out to them.”
And Eric understands loss. His older brother Steve suffered a cardiac arrest while hooked to a dialysis machine at the end of 2003 after spending thirty months receiving the treatment.
So when Harrison drove himself to the hospital in 2006 with flu-like symptoms and his doctor diagnosed him with Primary Hyperoxaluria and told him that he was living with only 1% kidney function, he knew exactly what to expect.
“I should be dead,” Eric said on Monday afternoon, sitting in the living room of the Kennebunk house that he grew up in. He recalled how his dialysis treatment increased to eight hours a day while he waited for organs to become available. He shook his head. “Eighteen people die every day because of a shortage of organs,” he said.
But thanks to his donor, his doctors and the support of Kennebunk Fire and Rescue and his local community, Eric is alive and doing well -- so well that he recently participated in the 2008 U.S. Transplant Games in Pittsburgh, PA and received the silver medal in the High-Jump event.
But for Eric the medals he won weren’t as important as the community of donors and donor families that he was a part of in Pittsburgh.
“I participated in the 100 meter down there,” he said. “And I’m no runner. I was running in these,” he said, pointing to his beat-up hiking shoes. “I look to my right and here’s this brother from L.A. who is all wiry and built for speed and is set on the blocks with these racing sunglasses. And to my left is a middle-aged guy who had recently received a heart transplant.” Harrison realized that none of the stuff about age or race or body type mattered. Everyone around him was the same. “They all appreciated life,” he said, “They got it.”
On his way home from the games, stuck on the tarmac at JFK, Eric was thrust back into reality. The passengers were impatient and getting angry because of the delay. Recalling the scene, Eric leaned back into his chair and paused to listen to the hum of his neighbor’s lawnmower. “You just want to tell them how precious life is,” he said. “We’re all in the same boat. Nobody is promised tomorrow.”
Eric was named Firefighter of the Year in Kennebunk this year, an honor he was happy to share with his friend Dave Stead. “The department is like a second family to me,” he said, and when he reflects on all of the difficult circumstances that he has faced on late night calls with Kennebunk Fire and Rescue his mind turns to organ donors and their families. “It’s a lot like being a firefighter,” he said. “You take the worst thing that can happen and you try to salvage what you can.”

Caption: 2008 Transplant Games High Jump Medalists: (left to right) Bronze Medal winner Brian Hinsley from Southern California (liver transplant), Gold Medal winner Dave Meyers from Illinois (heart transplant), Silver Medal winner Eric Harrison from Kennebunk, Maine (liver and kidney transplants). (Courtesy photo)