Phoenix rising: Craig woman gives gift of life to son
August 21, 2018
CRAIG — Jason Davis' life has never been what most would call simple.
Diagnosed with Type I diabetes at age 3, his path through the world has been one of adapting, overcoming, tailoring a daily routine to fit within the parameters genetic chance assigned him.
"When you're diagnosed at 3, you learn you don't get the Halloween candy," said Rene Littlehawk, Davis' mother. "You just don't do certain things."
But in another, perhaps more telling sense, Jason's life has been the antithesis of structure — a life of discovery, of questioning convention, of working to understand and appreciate the differences that make each human being an individual.
That's probably why it wasn't so difficult, as a child, to accept that there would be no candy for him on Halloween.
"I'm not into physical things, you know, like food and sensation-like stuff for my idea of fun," he said. "I prefer intellectual pursuits."
Recommended Stories For You
And, until about six years ago, that approach had been working for him.
He'd developed into an accomplished artist and writer, his diabetes was under good control, he'd purchased a home, and he'd been working at Horizons Specialized Services — where his mother, his brother, Sean, and his sister-in-law also work — for 13 years.
But all that was to change in September 2012, when Littlehawk found her son lying on the floor of his home, unconscious and non-responsive. They later learned his health crisis had resulted from an unlikely cause — an allergic reaction to deodorant that had progressed into a septic infection.
His blood pressure was off the charts, and blood vessels in his eyes had burst, leading to partial blindness. Most concerning, his kidneys were failing.
Davis was in big trouble, and Littlehawk recalls being told by hospital personnel to, "make arrangements. He won't survive."
That "was not something I accepted well," Littlehawk said, so the family set up a Flight for Life to St. Anthony Hospital in Lakewood.
Despite the initial prognostications, Davis did survive, prompting his mother to coin a new nickname for him: "The Phoenix."
But though he had risen from the proverbial ashes, the aggressive infection had left Davis with a host of new problems, most troubling, the severe damage to his kidneys.
Now, Littlehawk is looking to see her "Phoenix" rise yet again, and to make that happen, she's willing to do almost anything.
On Monday, Aug. 27, she will give Davis perhaps one of the greatest gifts imaginable: one of her own kidneys.
Long road, minor setback
After two weeks at St. Anthony, it had become clear Davis would pull through his bout with sepsis, but he was far from unscathed.
"It was a really aggressive infection," Littlehawk said, adding that, at one point, antibiotics were being pumped directly into Davis' heart.
Diabetic retinopathy, aggravated by blood pressure spikes, caused vessels in Davis’ eyes to rupture — a condition commonly known as "bleeders" — and this has claimed a portion of his sight. Two cataract surgeries, three vitrectomies — a procedure to remove accumulated blood from within the eyeball — and periodic intraocular injections have helped with this condition, but of greater concern is the damage to his kidneys.
A strict diet — far more strict than his normal diabetic regimen — controlled the symptoms arising from kidney failure for a time, but by November 2016, Davis’ nephrologist said the time had come to begin looking into the transplant process.
As luck would have it, a screening intended to "eliminate" immediate family members yielded surprising — and fortunate — results.
Littlehawk was a match.
"They tested me to eliminate me, but I wasn't eliminatable," she said. "I don't eliminate real well."
Following a battery of tests — including blood tests, stress tests, tissue match tests, and MRIs — surgeons determined Littlehawk was qualified to donate her kidney, and by July 2018, all the family was waiting for was the transplant hospital — Porter Adventist, in Denver — to call with a surgery date.
The call came in July, but it wasn't the call they were looking for, and the news was anything but good. The hospital's transplant center was closing, and all its transplant patients — including Davis — would have to be transferred to one of Colorado's other two transplant centers.
"They left 232 people hanging in the wind," Littlehawk said. "We got the phone call on the third of July, so they closed it probably that Monday. But when they closed it, they had to transfer everything to University."
Even so, Littlehawk and Davis had an ace in the hole.
Top of the list
"Luckily for Jason and myself, since we were already matched, we kind of got pushed to the top," Littlehawk said. "A lot of the folks who got moved don't have a donor, don't have a match, so some of them are actually going to have to start from the beginning again."
Since the family's transfer to University, the process has kicked itself into overdrive. They traveled to Denver to meet the University Hospital surgical team on Thursday, Aug. 2, and by late last week, their surgery date had been confirmed for Monday, Aug. 27.
"He gets my left kidney," Littlehawk said. "They didn't like my right one as well. It has two blood vessels, so they said it's better to take one that has a single blood vessel. So, he gets 'Lefty.'"
All told, the procedure will take between five and six hours. Littlehawk should be released from the hospital within two weeks, and Davis is expected to follow two weeks after that.
After completing the recovery process, doctors think Davis will be able to return to work, at least part-time, and he can’t wait. When he speaks of his time at Horizons, it becomes clear he both enjoyed and was heavily invested in his work there.
"I took what was literally the bottom-rung job," Davis said. "Nobody wanted the job I had … and I liked it. Minimum paperwork, I didn't have to tell other people what to do: Basically, it was just me and the clients."
And this last, he said — his interactions with clients — were among the things he most enjoyed about his work.
He described finding great reward in discovering the different ways clients experienced and dealt with strong emotions, then developing unconventional ways to connect with them.
"I made them coffee they actually liked in the morning … exposed them to things that they loved that nobody else would've thought they'd enjoy, like 'Star Trek,' 'Doctor Who,' heavy metal," he said.
At the same time, Horizons seems just as eager to have Davis back.
Michael Toothaker, Horizons' adult community coordinator, had nothing but praise for the family, many of whom have been his employees.
"We're all family, so we've done everything we can to support them," Toothaker said. "Rene has been working diligently, non-stop, to do what's best for her son. Our ultimate goal is that Jason is able to recuperate and he is able to come back. He and his family are an integral part of Horizons."
Even with the help of understanding employers and supportive friends, expenses for the family are mounting as its resources dwindle.
Fortunately, the surgery will be covered by Davis' insurance, but four years worth of regular trips to Denver — coupled with his inability to work — have taken a financial toll.
Littlehawk is using all her paid time off for the month she and Davis will be in Denver recuperating from the surgery, and she is raising funds to help cover living expenses there.
On Saturday, she will host The Phoenix Rising Fundraiser Sale beginning at 9 a.m. under the grandstands of Moffat County Fairgrounds. The event will feature two raffles — one for a men's 26" bicycle with a helmet and the other for farrier services for one horse — a number of items for sale, live music, baked goods, and, according to Littlehawk, "lots of fun."
The family has also established a GoFundMe page — gofundme.com/fnywd-kidney-for-jason — to accept help from the community.
"We've got a great support group," Littlehawk said. "We really do. The Horizons group, it's kind of like having an extended family. They really are fantastic … beyond supportive. Whatever we need, they will be there for. They have been a great blessing, just knowing the employer is there and knowing how much they support is fantastic."
Contact Jim Patterson at jpatterson@CraigDailyPress.com or 970-875-1790.