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The Greatest Gift

Rockets mascot reveals personal story behind his race to promote organ donation

HOUSTON - It’s always someone else’s issue, someone else’s problem, someone else’s pain. A neighbor ends up in a terrible accident. A co-worker experiences liver failure. A friend of a friend has diabetes and their kidneys can’t hold up much longer.

It’s always someone else; never you or the ones you love. You see it, you feel badly, but the pain only goes so deep.

Then one day you find out your father has three months to live. Maybe less. He needs a new set of lungs. Every day from that moment forward becomes a race against the clock or, more accurately, a race against death itself. Now it’s your problem. Now the pain buries itself deep within your bones. And now you know, perhaps for the very first time, that what touches one eventually touches all, and that the only way to overcome is to team up to tackle the problem together.

That is the story of Robert Boudwin, the man inside the Rockets’ mascot, Clutch the Bear. Less than a year ago a simple lunch with his dad turned into a life-changing experience for the entire family. His father, Paul, had been diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis – an ultimately terminal disease that brings about a scarring or thickening of the lungs – several years earlier and now a case of pneumonia had him so short of breath he could barely utter more than a word or two at a time. It didn’t take long for Robert to recognize that something was badly amiss and that his father’s condition was deteriorating rapidly. A quick check of Paul’s blood-oxygen level confirmed the worst: he was in imminent danger of organ failure. Robert rushed him to the hospital where the doctors delivered a grim report.

“They said he had, at most, three months without a transplant,” Robert vividly recalls, knowing that February 2 will now forever be etched upon his mind’s eye. “Up to that point, a transplant wasn’t something we were really considering. It sounded almost like sci-fi to people like us who didn’t know anything about it. Life kind of felt like we were heading in a speeding car toward the edge of a cliff, but we didn’t know how far away the cliff really was.”

Now they knew. Exactly a week later Paul was placed on the transplant list in the No. 2 position based on his dire need and also the fact that he was in otherwise excellent health and therefore had a very high probability of surviving the surgery and recovery process if a donor came through in time. From that point forward, there was nothing to be done but to pray and wait. All the while, the clock continued to tick.

The call came in the middle of the night on February 15. Unbeknownst to the Boudwins, 22-year-old Ian Heidemann had died as a result of a tragic car accident the night before. Prior to his death, however, he had self-registered as an organ and tissue donor. Paul was to receive Ian’s lungs. The moment of truth had arrived.

“It’s surreal,” whispers Robert while remembering the kind of experience that no one is ever fully prepared for. “You’re in the waiting room and your father is going into surgery. They’re cutting him open and taking his lungs out of his body before the donor lungs are even in the hospital – they’re being flown in on a private jet from another city, then being rushed from the airport to the hospital as your dad’s chest cavity is open.”

Prior to the surgery Paul insisted upon having his will updated. He and everyone else, whether they wanted to admit it or not, knew the stakes involved. The surgery lasted eight hours. More than ten months later, he was able to celebrate Christmas the way every grandfather dreams of doing: by hugging, holding and spoiling his twin 4-year-old grandsons, Jack and Luke.

But while the Boudwin’s story has a happy ending, Robert now realizes how many others still perilously hang in the balance. Organ donation and the organizations, like Life Gift, that help to manage them, are now near and dear to his heart. In particular, education about the subject is priority one. He can recite all the numbers with ease: Approximately 120,000 people nationwide are on the waiting list for an organ; about 18 people die every day whose lives could have otherwise been saved if there were enough available organs; only 4.7 million Texans of the state’s total population of 26 million are registered for organ donation.

And so Robert’s race continues, only this time it will take on a drastically different form. On January 19, Robert will don the Clutch costume and run the Houston Half Marathon in support of organ donation and Donate Life Texas. He’s recruiting as many people as possible to run alongside him as part of “Team Clutch” with the goal being to create a spectacle in front of the more than 200,000 people on hand. And appropriately enough, his mother and father – and the parents of Ian Heidemann as well – will be right there with him every step of the way.

“We’re encouraging anyone who’s currently registered for the half marathon to join me on Team Clutch,” says Robert. “It really just means they have to make a $50 donation to Life Gift. For that they get a Team Clutch shirt and can run with me in the race.

“This celebrates Ian in that we feel like he’s getting to live on through my father – in total there were six people who were saved by Ian’s gift. I’m very thankful that there’s organizations like Life Gift and people like Ian out there, otherwise I wouldn’t have my Dad and my 4-year-old twins wouldn’t be able to experience their Pop-Pop.”