It took Mike Sayre a month before he told his wife, Tracy, what he was thinking about doing. He knew she would be a little scared. He felt the same way. But it was something that deep in his gut he knew was the right thing do.
“How often do you get an opportunity to literally save someone’s life?” was what the 33-year-old Rutgers alumnus remembers thinking when he made the final decision to get tested to see if he would be able to donate part of his liver to Deryck Clarke, a graduate student he befriended back in 2008 at Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick.
Sayre’s selflessness is something Clarke, 54, believes is the reason he is alive, recuperating at home in Jersey City after a 12-hour surgery, and looking forward to continuing his career as a music advocate in public education.
“I felt so lost and sad, I didn’t know what to do,” said Clarke, describing his emotional state after learning last year that he would need a liver transplant. “I put it out on Facebook, said I needed some thoughts and prayers and hoped to at least get some emotional support.”
Sayre made the offer along with another friend from the Rutgers Mason Gross graduate program who stepped up first. Even though she was a medical match and could be a living donor, the team at Mount Sinai Hospital, where the procedure was performed, decided it might be too much of an economic hardship because the woman lived alone.
So Clarke, who was diagnosed in 2007 with PSC (Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis), a rare, incurable, liver disease and told last fall that he needed a transplant, reached back to Sayre: “Hey dude, remember when you offered your liver? Are we still good?” he asked.
The two French horn players, part of a contingent of four graduate horn-playing students in the school’s music performance program, kept in touch after they received their degrees. Clarke graduated in 2014 after taking a break for a family emergency. Sayre earned his degree in 2010.
Sayre, who grew up in Indiana, was newly married, working as a film and television music composer and living in Astoria, Queens. A boy scout as a kid, Sayre is the type of guy who believes in helping others. After earning his graduate degree, he spent time as the volunteer coordinator at Elijah’s Promise in New Brunswick, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending hunger.
Clarke taught music in the Newark school system. He was the outreach coordinator for the Harlem Chamber Players, formed a charity to provide instruments and after-school music instruction for underserved kids and served on arts education leadership councils to connect children to the arts. He also performed professionally with symphony, opera and ballet orchestras and collaborated with other artists on Broadway shows, chamber ensembles, jazz, R&B and Gospel groups.
After graduating from Mason Gross, Clarke tried to return to the classroom last fall. But he was forced to quit after less than two months because fatigue, short-term memory loss and painful joint pain due to his failing liver made it impossible to continue.
“It was really hard because I always wanted to save the world,” said Clarke, an Army veteran who served in Somalia. “I didn’t think the world had to save me.”
Sayre didn’t look at it this way. Clarke had always been a good friend. He had met his wife and daughter and knew about Clarke’s chronic medical condition. When Sayre first moved to the Northeast and met Clarke at Rutgers’ Mason Gross, it was Clarke who would give him rides to see Tracy in New York before they got married.“It’s a big decision, and I think everyone was surprised when I first told them what I was going to do,” said Sayre. “But I knew this was right and I have no regrets.”
While more than 6,300 people receive new livers each year, more than 15,000 patients wait for a liver transplant, usually from a deceased donor. Last year, only 359 Americans like Sayre became living donors by offering a portion of their livers to help someone else survive. Still, 1,400 people will die waiting because there are not enough organs available, according to the American Transplant Foundation.
The two men underwent their surgeries on September 13. Clarke says although the next day his body felt like it had been hit by a truck, the hung over feeling, his inability to complete sentences and an overall general fatigue that had been part of his everyday existence was gone. Even more miraculous to Clarke: When doctors removed his gall bladder to perform the surgery, they discovered a small cancerous polyp that doctors said could have metastasized.
“The timing for the transplant was perfect,” he said. “I feel like Mike saved my life twice.”
It will take six months to a year for Clarke to be considered fully recovered. Sayre expects to be back to normal in three months. The 60 percent of the right lobe of Sayre’s liver that is now keeping Clarke alive should be regenerated within a year, doctors who performed the surgery told him.
“They tell me the only physical connection that I’ll have to the surgery is the incision scar,” said Sayre, who is feeling better every day.
The two Mason Gross graduates – initially connected through their love of music and a deep appreciation of humanity – say they can’t imagine not sharing and supporting each other in whatever life has to offer.
“We are forever connected,” said Clarke, “What Mike did for me, I will never forget.”
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