Liver transplant strengthens bond between firefighter cousins

Liver transplant strengthens bond between firefighter cousins

Milton Giard, left, is donating a portion of his liver to his cousin, Rick Walker, right, at the beginning of October. Walker and Giard, both of Lincoln, grew up spending summers together in East Matunuck. (Breeze photo by Brittany Ballantyne)

LINCOLN – Milton Giard always looked up to his older cousin Rick Walker. Walker helped him with repairing dirt bikes and allowed Giard to tag along when he was a child.

Come Monday, Giard will be returning the favor.

Walker, of Lincoln, 50, who has Crohn’s disease, will receive 60 percent of Giard’s liver during a transplant surgery that day, Oct. 3. Giard, 41, also of Lincoln and a firefighter in Pawtucket, says everything fell into place after a conversation at East Matunuck State Beach, where the cousins grew up together.

Walker had been taking medication for Crohn’s disease since he was 18. Side effects damaged his liver and he was diagnosed with cirrhosis. He was on the list for a partial liver transplant at Lahey Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., for about six months when Giard realized he could donate a portion of his liver.

Until this summer, Giard hadn’t known about “living donors.” The two men explained that the list of individuals waiting for a donor is ranked based on the condition of the individual, from worst to best. But recovery for people who are in bad shape, the cousins said, is much more difficult.

Walker had been waiting on a deceased donor’s liver, when Giard spoke with one of Walker’s four children at the beach in July, and learned that his blood type was the same as his cousin’s.

From there, Giard said, “it couldn’t have fallen into place at a better time.”

Giard said his co-workers at the Pawtucket Fire Department have offered to cover some of his shifts so he’s able to save some of his sick time for any complications that might arise from the surgery.

Walker, who retired from the Lime Rock Fire District, worked with Giard at one point when both men were working at the Lincoln station.

“It’s a brotherhood; that bond stays forever,” Giard said of the firefighter friendship. He also explained, however, that even before the two were old enough to work, he looked at his Walker cousins as big brothers.

Giard remembered a time when he was in school and had to write about an important person in his life. He chose to write about Walker.

Rob Walker, Rick’s older brother who works for the Lime Rock Fire District, told The Breeze that when the boys were younger, Giard would ask them to peel out of their driveway once the Walker brothers were able to drive, and he was always following them around at the beach in the summer.

Rob Walker described Rick as a family man, with four children and five grandchildren, and someone who’s still quiet today. He told The Breeze that when he and Rick were children, he would always have to ask questions like “Can Rick come?” or say things like “Rick would like a cookie” when Rick was too shy to speak up.

Rob said he’s watched his brother struggle with Crohn’s for most of his adult life, and said this surgery is like “a new lease on life.” Rick has gone through a number of surgeries already.

Rick Walker said after the six-hour surgery, he might be in the hospital for two weeks if his body rejects the portion of Giard’s liver. He said he was also told it could take about nine months until his body is fully “up to normal.” Giard’s liver is expected to heal in about 80 days and will grow back completely.

All that time in the hospital, Rob Walker said, is sure to add up in bills. That’s why he started a Go Fund Me page at www.gofundme.com/rickmilt to help pay for hospital expenses and is organizing a fundraiser on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at Wright’s Farm Restaurant in Burrillville at 6:30 p.m.

Rob Walker said as of last week, he expects more than 100 people to attend the event that runs until 10:30 p.m. “There’s a lot of other things to worry about and money shouldn’t have to be one of them,” he said.

Rob Walker said their family is lucky that Rick is able to get the surgery he needs, and has the opportunity to watch his grandchildren grow – something that the Walkers’ father wasn’t able to experience. Rob said their father was 52 when he died, and Giard’s parents also died young.

To see Rick watch his kids and five grandchildren grow up, Rob said, is “a great gift.”

Giard said he’s not nervous about the surgery, and instead said, “it’s restoring a lot of faith.”

Giard and Rick Walker said they hope to be feeling good enough to spend Halloween and Thanksgiving at home with their families. Nodding at Rick, who is bald, Giard joked, “He’s hoping he gets some hair” with the transplant.