|JRI IN THE NEWS|
The Redford Family's Private Crisis
Reprinted with permission granted by Good Housekeeping
I remember waking up, and my entire family
was standing in a semicircle around my hospital bed, holding hands.I
will never forget it, says Jamie Redford. In that instant,
I realized the power of familythe power of family love.
At Jamies bedside were his father,
mother Lola Van Wagenen, sisters Shauna and Amy, and wife Kyle,
engulfing him with love and support, just as they had through years
of illness that began when he was 15. Now, at 30, he had just returned
from the brink of death.
Unfortunately, that first transplant was
not the success doctors had hoped for; Jamie would have many more
medical battles to fight. The long ordeal eventually led to a filmmaking
effort of his own. Last year, the younger Redford completed The
Kindness of Strangers, a gripping feature-length documentary exploring
the miraculous, complex world of organ donation. It airs this month
In a pleasant outdoor cafe near his Marin County,
CA, home, Jamie, now 37, nervously readjusts his well-worn Sundance
baseball cap as he recalls the struggle that spanned two decades
of his life. It is a story few people know about, even though it
began when his father was at the height of movie superstardom. The
Redfords purposely shielded their children from the Hollywood spotlight,
raising them in New York City and Sundance, UT.
Jamie was in the tenth grade when he first
came down with what appeared to be a particularly acute case of
stomach flu. There were grueling attacks of cramps, chills, fevers,
Throughout high school, Jamie would periodically
feel well enough to hit the ski slopes, play guitar in a local rock
band, and live like a normal teenager. Then the mysterious illness
Robert and Lola Redford, who married in
1959, had already endured one terrible tragedy, losing their first
child, Scott, to sudden infant death syndrome when he was just 3
months old. They resolved that they would not lose Jamie. They went
from doctor to doctor, until finally, in 1980, their sons
condition was diagnosed as ulcerative colitisa chronic inflammatory
disease of the large intestine that slowly destroys the colon.
Amid bouts of internal bleeding, rapid
weight loss, and scorching fevers, Jamie managed to complete a bachelors
degree at the University of Colorado. Then, in 1987, he received
a new, far more deadly diagnosis: primary sclerosing cholangitis
(PSC)a rare complication of ulcerative colitis that blocks
the livers bile ducts. They told me my liver would fail
within five to ten years, Jamie remembers.
Only 25 at the time, Jamie reacted with
a healthy dose of denial. I decided it wouldnt get me,
he says. Theyd come up with a cure. His parents
were less laissez-faire and immediately rushed to their sons
aid. They offered to fly me anywhere to get the right care
and guided me to anything that could be of help, says Jamie.
Though the Redfords had divorced two years earlier, in 1985, their
sons illness overruled any tensions between the two. Youre
always going to be parents to the same children, Lola has
said. Through all of this with Jamie, Bob and I really leaned
on each other for a lot of emotional support.
Jamie, though, had something other than
medical care on his mind. Two months after the PSC pronouncement,
he proposed to Kyle Smith, whom hed met at college. Without
hesitation, she said yes, a fact that still amazes Jamie. It
never occurred to her what she was getting into, he observes.
Our lives were just onewhat was happening to me was
happening to her.
By 1989, Jamie was experiencing excruciating
abdominal pains, curled-up-on-the-ground kind of pains,
as he puts it. In 1991, doctors said a transplant would be
needed sooner rather than later. By now the stakes had grown
even higher. Jamie had become a father: Son Dylan was born that
same year. (Now Jamie and Kyle also have a 3-year-old daughter,
Jamies condition continued to decline,
and by January 1993, he was essentially living at the University
of Nebraska Medical Center, under the care of Byers W. Shaw, Jr.,
M.D., one of the nations leading transplant surgeons. As he
waited for a liver, infections were sweeping through Jamies
body, and jaundice had literally turned the young mans skin
and eyes yellowanother sure sign of impending liver failure.
Jamie was in his room watching TV when
the call finally came. I have good news for you, said
the transplant coordinator. We found a liver. In a state
of shock, Jamie called his dad, who was in New York City preparing
to shoot the movie Quiz Show. I woke him up in the middle
of the night, recalls Jamie. He shut down production
and got on a plane.
By 6:00 a.m. the next day, Jamies
liver-transplant surgery was under way. Afterward, he awoke to the
human chain formed by his family. The love that encircled him was
unforgettable, but so too was the fact that his second chance at
life was dependent upon someone elses deathin this case,
a 29-year-old man who had suffered a brain aneurysm.
Theres a constant darkness
around it, Jamie says of organ donations. You know that
your transplant involves someone elses death. But he
has come to accept that whatever the donors path in
life, their fate isnt tied to yours. It took me a while to
recognize that my need for a transplant wasnt going to cause
someone else to die.
Initially, Jamie appeared to be making
a remarkable recovery. But seven days after the operation, an ultrasound
showed a blood clot had formed on the donated organ. Although doctors
repaired the liver as best they could, the prognosis wasnt
good: It was just a matter of time before the new organ would fail.
Less than two months later, Jamie was back
in the hospital full-time waiting for another transplant, again
fighting high fevers and rampant infections. Each day his need for
another liver grew more critical. I was really starting to
deteriorate, he says. I had a sense that things were
closing in on me.
Among the few bright spots during
this desperate period were the visits from his mom and dad. Robert
Redford, who had begun directing Quiz Show following Jamies
first transplant, told his son, I can do this movie next yearI
can completely shut it down. Jamie declined the offer, not
wanting to disrupt the lives of so many people. What Robert Redford
did instead speaks volumes about the bond between father and sonand
the stalwart determination they share. Every week, after long days
of shooting Monday through Saturday afternoon, Redford would catch
a flight and be at his sons bedside in Omaha by Saturday evening.
The two would spend the weekends watching rough cuts of the film
and enjoying each others company. Come Monday, Redford would
fly back. I really came to rely on this, Jamie recalls.
Jamies mother, who at the time was completing
her Ph.D. in American history, was also a constant presence. Although
a dissertation deadline loomed, Lola left New York University, dividing
her time between watching over her ailing son and baby-sitting grandson
Dylan, while squeezing in work on her doctorate.
As the weeks wore on, Jamie teetered on
the edge of total liver failure. If an organ did not become available
soon, the outcome would most assuredly be fatal. I became
very anxious, he says. I really felt like the clock
As did Jamies wife, Kyle, an eighth-grade
history teacher. Sitting by her husbands bedside on July 6,
1993, she wished aloud that her birthdayJuly 7would
bring with it the ultimate gift: the gift of life for her husband.
Wishes can come true.
The next morning, an exhausted, disheveled
transplant coordinator was at Jamies bedside. Well,
todays your day, he said. The man had just returned
from an overnight flight to retrieve a donated liver. This time,
the transplant took. The organ, which was donated by the family
of a 19-year-old male who died from severe head trauma, functioned
well enough for Jamie to be discharged less than two weeks after
the operation. Although he will have to take antirejection medication
for the rest of his life, his long-term prognosis is very good.
When he returned home, Jamie wrote letters
of gratitude to both donor families. Each word was a struggle. I
told them that I was going to do my best to honor their gift and
live my life as well as I could, he says. I wrote that
I hoped they understood they saved a son from growing up without
a father, and a loving wife from being a widow.
Two years after the surgery, he established
the James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness, a nonprofit
organization dedicated to educating the public about the urgent
need for organ and tissue donations and addressing concerns that
people have about becoming donors. (More than 60,000 patients nationwide
currently await transplants, and its estimated that each day
12 will die because of a lack of available organs.)
The institutes most ambitious undertaking
is the docume ntary The Kindness of Strangers. Beautifully shot
and deeply moving, the film interweaves the stories of four transplant
patients with those of two families who donated the organs of lost
loved ones. After viewing the film at a Chicago screening, Robert
Redford turned to his son and said, My God, this has to be
Jamie hopes that many people will see The Kindness of Strangers, noting that he will never forget the kindness of those strangers who saved his life and forever changed his outlook. Theres not a day that goes by, he says, that I dont find something to enjoy. My appreciation for the love of my familymy love for my kidsis never far away. The things that really matter, matter that much more. Carrie St. Michel
left and above archive photos, right photo Ken Regan/CAMERA 5
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