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URMC / Strong Memorial Hospital / Friends of Strong / The Best of Friends Blog / May 2018 / From Patient to Volunteer: Richard Perez to Receive Prestigious Honor

From Patient to Volunteer: Richard Perez to Receive Prestigious Honor

Friends of Strong volunteer Richard PerezLong-time Friends of Strong volunteer and liver transplant recipient, Richard Perez, has been chosen as one of five people to receive a 2018 ESL Jefferson Award, which honors individuals for their contributions toward creating a better community throughout the Rochester region.

Each year, ESL Federal Credit Union and News10NBC team up to invite the Rochester community to nominate our “unsung heroes who do great things every day and who help to make a difference in the lives of others.”

One of the five honorees will be chosen to represent Greater Rochester at the National Awards Ceremony in Washington D.C. next month—becoming eligible for the national Jefferson Award for Public Service, which has, at times, been referred to as a “Nobel Prize” for public and community service, and is the outcome of a 1972 collaboration between former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Senator Robert Taft, Jr., and Sam Beard.

Giving Back, to Help Save Lives

Throughout his life, 63-year-old Webster resident Richard Perez feels blessed by the love and support he’s received from the Rochester community. From a serendipitous career in retail and then financial security, to starting a family with his late wife, Maria, and subsequently their son and recently twin grandsons, a life-saving liver transplant on July 21, 2003, at UR Medicine’s Strong Memorial Hospital (SMH) would turn out to be among Richard’s greatest blessings.

Given a rare second chance at life, he has since embarked on a new mission and purpose—to help educate our community about organ donation and transplant, as well as providing comfort, support and comradery to fellow transplant patients.

Even before he received his own transplant, Richard seemed to know, intuitively, that there was a need in Rochester’s Donate Life community—a calling—that he could help fill. “I was sitting across the table from my surgeon, Dr. Mark Orloff, listening to the prognosis, how contingent on and rare that there would be a viable liver available, given that participation in the organ donor registry is so low,” he remembers. “I asked him right then if there was anything I could do to help change that.”

Soon after his transplant, Richard began volunteering with the Rochester Eye and Tissue Bank, now the Lions Eye Bank at Rochester, educating the public about organ donation and encouraging people to sign up for the Organ Donor Registry at various community events.

By June 2004, while he was busily helping raise awareness and get folks registered as organ donors, he also expanded an official volunteer program with SMH’s Friends of Strong to help comfort and provide comradery to patients and families who were now experiencing the same transplant journey that he and his family had also traveled. Since then, he’s volunteered more than 5,000 hours at SMH to make their lives just a little more bright. “Richard is always smiling and never down,” says Sandy Arbasak, director of Friends of Strong. “He generates enthusiasm and goodwill with patients, family and staff with every visit.”

This program, with Richard leading the charge, now includes at least eight volunteers at any given time—all of whom are fellow organ transplant recipients and uniquely able to provide comfort, hope and inspiration to those who face the same daunting obstacles much like they themselves have overcome.

Throughout the years, Richard has helped a significant number of the more than 700 liver transplant recipients, 2,000 people who have undergone a transplant evaluation and innumerable family members who have turned to him for reassurance. They come from all over Upstate New York and Northern Pennsylvania. “These patients must often wait years for a lifesaving donor organ to become available,” says Roberto Hernandez-Alejandro, M.D., director of Solid Organ Transplant at Strong Memorial Hospital. “He knows and understands the patient perspective and he provides a level of reassurance that is different from that of our clinical team members.”

One of the more remarkable ways Richard has given back to our community was when he secured an apartment—half donated and personally paying the remaining balance—which he then worked with social workers to provide for families to stay near their loved ones while awaiting and recovering from transplant surgery. From 2004 to 2010, more than 105 families from throughout the Rochester region were able to avoid hotel costs or what might have otherwise been a stressful daily commute from outlying areas. Although he no longer provides this donated home-away-from-home, he now serves as somewhat of an ambassador, connecting families-in-need with Harbor House, which provides that same service in the SMH neighborhood for today’s transplant patient families.

Richard continues volunteering throughout the Rochester area to help bring greater awareness and support for organ donation. He works tirelessly to recruit those he meets to register for the New York State Donate Life Registry, and over the past six years, he has become one of Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network’s most stalwart volunteers. According to the organization, which coordinates organ donations at 36 hospitals throughout the Finger Lakes, Central and Northern New York regions, the percentage of registered organ donors in our local region has grown from 27 percent to almost 40 percent in the time since Richard joined in their efforts. “This accomplishment can be attributed, in large part, to the hard work of our volunteers—particularly Richard Perez,” says Rob Kochik, executive director of Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network.

His own volunteers witness his dedication on a daily basis. “Richard puts his heart and soul into caring for patients and their families,” says volunteer and organ recipient Larry Rosner. “He’s pro-active and very innovative with his ideas to improve the patient experience here at Strong, both before and after their organ transplant, and he’s all-encompassing in his compassion for patients, families and their support team.”

Most people may not think about or consider the possibility that they or someone they love may one day find themselves in need of a life-saving organ donation, let alone the personal energy that goes into treatment and healing on the part of the patient and family. For patients and families who find themselves in such a circumstance today, the outlook is a little brighter because of Richard’s kind heart, steady volunteer ethic, and his group of volunteers who are now in place to give guidance, wisdom, or a kind and listening ear from a perspective that few are in a position to provide.

Matt Ulakovic | 5/9/2018

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