Andrew Dys

Rock Hill’s ‘Spider-Man’ recovering from triple organ transplant

Columnist

Andrew Dys

Heart- and lung-transplant recipient Richard Jenkins poses with daughters McKinley, 2, and Chloe, 8, and wife, Laura, at their home in Rock Hill.
Heart- and lung-transplant recipient Richard Jenkins poses with daughters McKinley, 2, and Chloe, 8, and wife, Laura, at their home in Rock Hill. aburriss@heraldonline.com

The guy walking in the grocery store with the mask on that covers a huge smile is not a robber. He is not a superhero, even though his kids say he is the real-life Spider-Man.

Rock Hill’s Richard Jenkins, 32, smiles because he is alive. Living, with two new lungs and a new heart, after years of illness that he believes was caused by an untreated black widow spider bite.

His chest and torso are covered with scars, showing where he was opened up like a gutted fish and put back together. It looks like a rototiller ran over him.

The organs were transplanted in November at Duke University Hospital in North Carolina. The heart and lungs came from somebody who died – an unknown stranger whose death gave Jenkins life.

“Every day I treasure being here, being alive with my wife, my kids,” Jenkins said. “Someday, I hope to meet the family of whoever’s heart and lungs are in my chest, and thank them for giving me a second chance at life through their generosity and their love.”

Jenkins and his wife, Laura, believe he was bitten while working as an exterminator several years ago. The bite was never diagnosed. The onset of illness went from sickness to his heart becoming enlarged, heart failure, and damage to arteries in his lungs. Jenkins couldn’t work or take care of his kids, Chloe and McKinley.

“We never knew if he would live,” Laura Jenkins said. “A transplant was our only hope.”

Jenkins’ odyssey from spider bite to transplant was first reported in The Herald last year, and an outpouring of donations and help from charities paid most of the staggering costs not covered by insurance. Brooke Mosteller, last year’s Miss South Carolina, raised money for him and became close with the family.

“People were very generous to us,” Laura Jenkins said. “We appreciate everyone – their help and their prayers. But when we came home, we didn’t have anything left.”

The couple had to wait for months near the hospital in Durham, so they would be just minutes away when organs were found that would match. The call came in November, and Jenkins spent six days fighting for his life as the family hoped his body would not reject the organs.

“I was unconscious for all those days,” Jenkins said, “and finally I woke up and I had somebody else’s heart beating in my chest, and their lungs breathing for me.”

So far, in part thanks to taking medications that fight off organ rejection, Jenkins has survived. He can’t sip his favorite soft drink, cherry-lemon Sun Drop, because the acid in it is a no-no. He can’t eat his favorite food – sushi – or drink grapefruit juice or eat much fried food.

Jenkins is supposed to wear a special mask over his mouth and nose when in public. Those are the times when he scares people, but he hopes the public understands the mask is for his protection from other people’s germs, not an attempt to hide.

“There are a lot of ‘don’ts,’ but if I want to stay alive, I better be careful what I eat and drink,” Jenkins said. “Sometimes I think that I have been through so much, I will just eat what I want and do what I want, but I owe it to a lot of people – my family and the person who died whose lungs and heart are inside me – to stay healthy as long as I can.”

Somehow Jenkins has kept a light humility about himself through the years of sickness and now multiple organ transplants. After the spider bite, he got a spider tattoo. While at Duke, he wore a blanket around his shoulders from his beloved University of North Carolina Tar Heels. His daughters got him a Spider-Man stuffed pillow.

The guy his older daughter, Chloe, almost 9, calls Spider-Man is still her dad.

And McKinley, about to turn 3, has her dad.

Laura is walking with a bit of a shuffle. In a month, she is expecting the couple’s third child. A boy, this time.

The family had hoped to find out the name of the organ donor in time to name the child after the donor, but that can’t happen for months, years – maybe ever. Only after a year can a donor’s family agree to meet the recipient. And then, if the family says no, Jenkins will never meet the family whose deceased loved one gave him his life back.

But the prospect of a new baby is still joyous.

Jenkins and his wife chuckle, because the math simply shows that the soon-to-be baby boy was conceived while waiting for a new heart and lungs.

As the nurses and others at the hospital watched Laura get more and more pregnant, they kept asking Richard with sly grins, “Thought you was sick, huh?”

Waiting months for a transplant, Jenkins said, there “wasn’t a lot to do but wait.”

Apparently, well, let’s just say Rock Hill’s Spider-Man believes in living a full life.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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