How do you thank a friend for saving your life?
For giving up half his liver so you can live another day?
The enormity of that gift hit Michigan State Police Trooper Chris Boven as he waited in a pre-op area for his liver transplant.
Across the way sat the man who volunteered to be his living donor—Trooper David Burr, a man Boven once trained as a new State Police recruit when they worked at the Rockford post.
“He’s waiting to get cut open and not for his own benefit, but for my benefit,” he said. “I don’t know how I would feel in that situation. It’s a big deal.”
Burr shrugged it off. He saw a way to help someone in need, and so he did.
“It was a no brainer,” he said.
Liver disease as a teen
Boven, who grew up in Byron Center, south of Grand Rapids, has known a transplant might be in his future since he was 13 years old.
While working at local farm, pulling weeds and doing various chores, he noticed some lumps in his armpit. That discovery led to a series of doctor appointments, a blood test and ultimately a diagnosis: He had a rare liver disease called primary sclerosing cholangitis. It’s a chronic, progressive condition that causes inflammation and fibrosis, and it eventually leads to cirrhosis and impaired liver function.
Because he had an enlarged spleen, his doctors told him to give up football and contact sports. That was tough for an athletic kid. But he channeled his energy into snowboarding and mountain bikes.
In high school, a guidance counselor asked, “What job could you look forward to doing the rest of your life.”
Boven replied: “I think I could be a police officer. I think that would be a lot of fun.”
He kept his eyes on that goal through the years to come. After graduating from Grand Valley State University in 2005 and the Michigan State Police Academy in 2008, he began his dream job as a state trooper.
The fast-paced lifestyle suits his action-oriented, gung-ho personality.
“You get in a patrol car and it’s a good day,” he said.
Plus, he finds serving others rewarding.
“Helping people is absolutely our No. 1 priority,” he said. “Protecting life and property is our mantra.”
He and his wife, Alex, got married in 2012 and settled in North Muskegon. After several years of hope and prayer, the couple welcomed their first child, Eli, into their lives four years ago.
“I cried like an infant when he was born,” Boven said.
Through those 23 years after his diagnosis, Boven continued to see liver specialists at Spectrum Health and Henry Ford who monitored and managed his condition. And he wondered when his liver would fail and he would need a transplant.
“For 23 years, you kind of have it in the back of your head that some time, it’s going to happen,” he said.
He began to notice symptoms of liver disease in late 2017. He traces it to the day his dog disappeared. He found him 24 hours later in a ditch full of water and thorny plants. Scratches on his leg became infected and he developed a bad case of cellulitis.
After that, he fought one infection after another. Fluid built up in his abdomen.
Ammonia levels rose in his brain and impaired his short-term memory and attention span. He made repeated trips to Detroit for hospitalization at Henry Ford.
By late 2018, his health had declined so much he went on long-term disability. Twice, Alex found him unresponsive and called for an ambulance.
“I’d go to sleep and wake up in the hospital 18 hours later strapped to a gurney,” he said.
Volunteers line up to donate
When word spread about his need for a transplant, dozens of Michigan State police officers and others volunteered for screening to donate.
Those who donate a liver or a kidney undergo a stringent evaluation process to determine, first, if their own health is good and, second, whether they are a perfect match for the recipient.
Two potential donors made it partway through the evaluation, but were not approved for transplant.
When Burr emerged as the best match, he readily stepped up to help. He admired Boven as a friend, as a trooper and as “a real family man.”
“I knew him pretty well from being my field training officer for 10 weeks. I rode in a car with him for 12-hour days for a couple of months straight.”
As a mentor, Burr said Boven “was just really good at teaching me to do the job well, how to be the kind of person who is there to help more than anything.”
The transplant took place Feb. 25, 2019, in adjacent operating rooms at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, with support through a Henry Ford Transplant Institute’s Liver Transplant Clinic at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids.
Boven watched as his friend was wheeled into the operating room first. A while later, someone told him the surgeons had almost finished removing a portion of Burr’s liver. They would soon bring him back.
“Talk about no-turn-back time,” he thought. “We are in it to win it now.”
When he arrived in the operating room, Boven looked up at the dozens of medical personnel surrounding them and said, “I don’t know who you guys are, but I really appreciate what you are doing.
“I get to see my son grow up.”
The first days after surgery proved challenging, he said.
“Just sitting up was darn near impossible,” he said. “To feel this type of immobility was not in my wheelhouse. It definitely took some time to recover.”
But about two days after the operation, he made his way down the hall to Burr’s hospital room.
“You saved my life, man,” Boven said.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Burr replied.
‘It’s very humbling’
Boven gave credit to his wife, Alex, a nursing student at Baker College, for helping him through his illness and recovery from surgery. And he marveled at the wide net of support that buoyed his family throughout the process—including meals and fundraising assistance.
“It’s very humbling when you think about the amount of people who helped out, from Henry Ford, Spectrum, your family, friends, coworkers, your extended family,” he said. “I can’t fathom the number of people who rallied to help me. When you’re on the other side of the health spectrum, it’s very overwhelming.
“I still can’t believe it all worked out.”
As to his donor, Boven struggled to find a way to thank him. He once jokingly offered to mow Burr’s lawn for the rest of his life.
“The only way I can repay him is to continue on with my life and live my life,” Boven decided.
“Absolutely,” Burr agreed.
For Boven, living a full life means being home at night to put his son to bed.
“I crawl into bed, read some books and fall asleep with him,” he said. “It makes it all worthwhile.”
Every now and then when overwhelmed by a happy moment—watching a sunset, hiking Silver Lake sand dunes with his family—Boven sends a text to the former police “cub” who saved his life.
“I’ll look around and I’ll send a picture to Dave with, ‘Hey, I just want to say thanks,’” Boven said.
For his part, Burr felt fully recovered from the surgery by May.
He admitted to being a bit nervous about the operation, mainly because he had never undergone surgery. But now he encourages others who consider being a living donor.
“Overall it’s a fairly simple surgery,” he said. “So it’s nothing to be afraid of doing.”
After transplant, the liver regenerates for both the donor and recipient.
One benefit of living liver donation is that the transplanted organs typically last longer than those received from deceased donors, say Henry Ford specialists.
Those with living donors often get their transplants sooner than those waiting for a liver from a deceased donor. And a living donor frees up an organ from a deceased donor for another patient waiting on the list.
‘A second family’
Boven, 37, returned to work full-time Oct. 21.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” he said.
He works in the state police’s Marine Services Team based in Lansing—commonly known as the Dive Team. He hasn’t been cleared yet for underwater work, so he focuses on the sonar operation, helping divers in recovery operations.
The partnership between Henry Ford and Spectrum Health allows Boven and other West Michigan residents to receive pre- and post-surgery care close to home.
“We are very excited to partner closely with Henry Ford Hepatology to have them provide pre- and post-transplant liver care here at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids,” said Andrew Shreiner, MD, the section chief of gastroenterology at Spectrum Health.
“We manage many patients with liver disease in our practice, and we are able to easily refer patients to Henry Ford when it is time to consider liver transplant.”
“It’s so nice,” said Boven, who lives in North Muskegon. “It’s a 35-minute drive compared to a three-hour drive. And you get the same great care.”
The powerful support for Boven—from Burr and other troopers who volunteered to be a donor—didn’t surprise State Police Lt. Chris McIntire, their commander at the Rockford post.
“In law enforcement, we have a second family,” he said.
“It was very easy for the guys to want to step up for Chris because of the kind of character he has and the kind of person he is,” he added.
“He has always helped anybody he can wherever he can. I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that if he had the opportunity, he would have done the same thing for anybody.”