Organ recipient’s love was big and beautiful

Patient Care |

04/25/2024

Sherck family transplant

Malachi Sherck, who was transplanted as a baby and lived to the age of 19, received the gift of life, but so did all those who knew him.

By Maureen Gilmer, Riley Children’s Health senior writer, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

Malachi Sherck might have needed a new liver and small bowel years ago, but there was nothing wrong with the young man’s heart.

He loved big from the time he was a baby to his final days at Riley Hospital for Children, where he passed away in December at the age of 19.

The fact that he reached young adulthood was a miracle in itself, his parents say, because he nearly died when he was an infant, but his Riley team and the gift of organ donation saved him.

Sherck family transplant

His family came together with Riley team members Wednesday in an event organized by 9 West child life specialist Maddie Rodriguez to celebrate Malachi and the gift of life in recognition of Pediatric Transplant Week.

Chris and Rachel Sherck of Muncie, along with their three younger children, Ruth, Gideon and Lydia, and Rachel’s parents, Dennis and Candy Miller, returned to Riley to add beads to the Donate Life wall display on 9 West, where Malachi spent a lot of time.

“He had a way of knowing when people needed something,” Chris Sherck said of his son, who was nonverbal and had autism but communicated the important things.

UNSPOKEN LESSONS

That’s what registered nurse Anna Lubbers remembers, too. She considers herself lucky to have been able to care for Malachi often in the last year of his life.

While he was unable to speak, she said, “he was able to teach me that words are not needed to communicate compassion, thanks or kindness.”

“He always knew when an extra smile or hug was needed, and he especially knew when we could use a laugh,” Lubbers said. “Malachi made me a better nurse, a better thinker and a better person.”

That’s just one of many stories people have shared with Malachi’s family – stories that remind them what a powerful imprint he left on his family, his friends and his community. It’s knowing about the lives he touched that fills his family with so much gratitude.

“He changed my life and so many others’,” said Malachi’s grandmother, Candy. “We got to see it in so many ways. I’m an old lady and the things he did to change my life…” She shakes away tears. “I’m also a nurse, and my nursing career changed because of what he has done in my life. Because of organ donation, not only did he get to live, we will be forever changed by that gift.”

He made the most of the gift he received, Chris agreed, not just living his life but impacting so many others.

“With Malachi, you felt seen and known,” he said.

Sherck family transplant

“He could tell when you were down,” added Malachi’s little brother, Gideon. “He’d walk up to you, grab your hands, stare right in your eyes and smile.”

Ruth, 16, said even though her brother couldn’t speak, “You knew he loved you. He would snuggle up on the couch, give you a hug and a kiss.”

She is grateful for the time she was given with him.

“When Malachi was an infant, he was given two days to live. If he hadn’t lived, I wouldn’t have been able to meet my big brother, so transplant gave me the opportunity to have a big brother for the 16 years that I did.”

TRANSPLANT AT AGE 1

Malachi suffered a twisted intestine when he was just a few weeks old and was LifeLined to Riley, where he stayed for four months, eventually requiring TPN (total parenteral nutrition) intravenously. That caused his liver to begin to fail.

In 2006, Just after his first birthday, he underwent multiple surgeries in Chicago to transplant a portion of his mother’s liver and intestines, but a central line infection disrupted blood flow to the bowel, so he required another bowel transplant – this time with his uncle as his donor.

Sherck family transplant

“He did great,” Rachel Sherck said, adding that Malachi’s care was transferred back to Riley shortly after transplant, but he was healthy for years. He thrived at home until last year when he acquired a blood infection that started a downward spiral.

Still, Chris said, they received the gift of time.

“Transplant is not a cure, but it is an opportunity for an individual and their family to have an extension of life that you cherish. It changed our lives. It wasn’t giving an extension of life just to Malachi. It was giving an extension of life to all of us, changing all of us in powerful ways.”

Even in 2023, when Malachi began suffering complications, “we made it to December because of all the hard work and love and care the doctors, nurses and surgeons provided,” he said.

They hold that entire team close to their hearts.

“On Dec. 12, when we were walking out of here without Malachi, we were grieving because we weren’t taking Malachi with us, but we were also grieving because this place is like home,” Chris told a large group of nurses, physicians and others gathered on 9 West.

“TEAM LOVED US AS A FAMILY”

“I don’t think we can express enough how wonderful the people who work here are,” Rachel added. “The doctors are amazing, obviously, but nurses don’t always get enough credit. We’ve kept in contact with nurses he had 19 nurses ago, and the new nurses we’ve gotten to meet are like family.”

Nurses like Tracy Swift, who cared for Malachi as a bedside nurse nearly two decades ago and was by his side again last year in her role as a certified wound, ostomy and continence nurse.

Dr. Jean Molleston, chair of Riley’s Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition division, served as Malachi’s primary physician, while Dr. Deborah Billmire was his primary surgeon over the years.

As Malachi got older, he connected with Dr. Richard Mangus, surgical director of the IU Health intestine transplant program and pediatric liver transplant program, and Dr. Kyla Tolliver, GI and hepatology specialist.

Malachi’s siblings felt the love, too.

“Maddie knew when the kids were coming for a visit on a weekend, Rachel said. “She set out coloring books, Legos, toys, games. She made sure they had everything they needed.”

“The entire team,” she said, “loved us as a family.”

Gideon remembers one day in particular.

“I got to skip school and come here because it was Malachi’s birthday. It was amazing how all the nurses treated me as well as they treated Malachi. I felt really special that day, even though it was about my brother,” the middle schooler said.

“All the way to the end, they take care of the entire family,” Rachel said.

“We wouldn’t have had 19 years with Malachi if it wasn’t for this place, so for that we are forever grateful,” Chris told the team gathered Wednesday. “Thank you, and thank you for the chance to celebrate him.”

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

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