When Daniel Schwartzkopf was being wheeled into surgery for his liver transplant 15 years ago, the drag car racing owner-driver tossed out one of his signature lines as he fist-bumped his donor:
“See you at the finish line.”
Those words were particularly meaningful since the man on the other side of the bump was his then-33-year-old son, Jamie.
“My son donated 65% of his liver to me, and because of that, I like to joke that I’m a lot younger than people think,” he said and laughed, before adding. “But he saved my life – he’s my son, my buddy and my hero.”
Dan and his son both made it to the finish line in that race in 2008. In fact, his son’s liver would grow back to its original size within three months. But his father would face many more health scares and chronic medical battles that would test his competitive spirit and the limits of what his body could physically endure in the years that followed.
The transplant was not the end of Dan’s quest toward a better quality of life for himself, but just the beginning of one that would entail 83 additional surgeries contributing to a medical file that runs about 30,000 pages. Through it all, he has maintained his faith, his humor and his appreciation for his family, friends, and the staff who have treated him since 2005 at UCHealth and CU Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus.
“I’ve had more needles stuck in me than a porcupine has needles sticking out of it,” said the 68-year-old Torrington, Wyoming resident. “And I joke that I’ve trained most of the doctors at the hospital during the past 18 years. But really, I’ve been so blessed. I trust them and I wouldn’t want to be treated anywhere else.”
Small-town upbringing with five brothers
Growing up with five brothers in Nebraska’s panhandle 30 miles from his current Wyoming home, Dan’s family didn’t have a lot of money, and he remembers wearing hand-me-down clothes and getting into frequent scrapes with other boys.
“I was raised a tough guy, and from kindergarten on up, was fighting. If I wasn’t racing cars, I was fighting someone,” he said.
He and his brothers loved to buy old cars, fix them and race them down country roads – a passion that stuck with him throughout his life as he became a race car driver and team owner touring the country promoting the use of ethanol, a fuel made from corn and other plant materials. The ethanol industry combined farming, agriculture and cars – three ingredients that have always fueled his interest.
But before that, he was a teenager trying to find his way.
After high school, he gave up a scholarship to play college football as family obligations, and the birth of his daughter meant providing for her and a son who was followed a year later. He joined the U.S. Navy from 1974 to 1982, an experience he loved … except for the part when a tattoo he got at a naval shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, in 1976 set off an unfortunate chain of events that haunt him to this day. He suspects that innocent rite of passage was responsible for his hepatitis C diagnosis nearly 30 years later. Hepatitis C is a viral infection that causes liver inflammation and can lead to serious liver damage.
It caught up with him at a routine office visit in 2005 when one thing led to another, and Dan found himself with a diagnosis of end-stage liver disease.
“I thought I was pretty much done health wise,” he recalled. “My wife and I searched the internet for where I should get care, and we saw that UCHealth was a leader in liver transplants. So that’s where we headed.”
End-stage liver disease = frequent commuter from Wyoming to Denver
That began his relationship with UCHealth, as he and Diane, his wife of 32 years, commenced the three-hour, 183-mile commute from Torrington to the Anschutz campus, a trek he would make scores of times over the next two decades to see dozens of physicians from many departments.
From 2005-2008, he was treated with three different chemotherapy drugs to try and cure his disease, but nothing worked, as doctors discovered he had genotype 3, which accounts for about a quarter of all hepatitis C cases and is more difficult to treat than other strains. As his conditions worsened, a transplant was necessary, and doctors found a suitable donor match in his son.
“It’s a very hard thing to ask someone in your family if they will give up part of their liver for you,” he said.
Dan went from 250 pounds to 200 overnight after the transplant with the fluid retention he lost. But he wasn’t out of the woods by any stretch. He went into cardiac arrest a few days later, and while doctors worked on saving his life, he said he had an out-of-body experience where he momentarily died, but “God was with me; he brought me back.”
As his daughter Danielle wrote in a newspaper essay about her father following the transplant: “The illness that seeks out his life has taught us new ways to experience life with our father.”
Despite his new liver, he continued to fight hepatitis C with various experimental drugs, with a cure finally coming in the spring of 2016. But his victory would be short-lived. In the fall of that same year, he was diagnosed with stage IV non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that had metastasized and spread throughout his body, including into his lungs and liver.
He would return to the Anschutz campus and endure 120 hours of nonstop chemotherapy, consisting of seven different drugs, every 16 days for six months. But he didn’t go through the ordeal alone. When he arrived at the hospital, many members of his family, including grandchildren and great-grandchildren, showed up to wish him well. They each signed a cap that he promised to wear when he was cancer free.
And several months later in the spring of 2017, Dan donned the cap, rang the bell that signified the end of his treatment and pointed to the exit sign on his way out as he left a cancer-free man.
But while Dan might have been done with hospital stays, he still had more health battles ahead. Years of medications to cure the diseases he’d fought had damaged his heart, and in the fall 2017, he had open heart surgery, which included a double bypass. His health care team came to realize that his issues never were textbook cases and seemed to go from bad to worse very quickly.
“He’s dealing with so many things on so many different fronts, all serious and potentially life-threatening, and he has faced a tremendous amount of medical adversity,” said Dr. David Kao, UCHealth cardiologist. “But he carries on because of who he is as a person and his determination. He’s a very positive, determined guy. He is aware of the good and the bad happening to him, but he’s found a way to build trust with the people taking care of him.”
Many battles on many fronts
During the past few years, Dan has faced blood clots, a bleeding disorder, an E. coli infection, a pulmonary embolism, two knee replacements and 10 skin cancer surgeries, all while having to follow COVID-19 protocol during the pandemic. His stage IV liver disease has returned, and he must contend with high blood pressure, diabetes, blood flow issues, and living with lungs operating at 50% capacity and a heart, at 75% capacity. He does his best to keep these chronic issues at bay with diet, exercise and a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s not done with me yet, but I’m feeling good,” he said. “Even though everything has involved so much time, and I’m still fighting so much of it, right now, I’m as good as I’ve been in a long time.”
After spending much of his adult life in the ethanol industry and making international racing friends, he has supporters all over the world who have cheered him from afar during his medical travails as they once did from the stands. He is proud of his role in promoting ethanol as a motorsports fuel and being the first producer of race ethanol for the Indy Racing League.
Away from the track, Dan looks forward to a planned family cruise and spends as much time as he can with his loved ones, many of who live near his home or in Colorado.
“Even in dark and hard times, he has the ability to find positivity and faith in his family and keep going,” said Meg O’Meara, transplant hepatology nurse practitioner. “He’s one of the most resilient patients I have, but also open to talking about his feelings. He cares about the people who care about him. He’s a special person.”
His medical care team point to Dan as an example of a patient with a complex medical history who has benefited from multiple teams communicating well to provide exemplary healthcare.
And Dan couldn’t agree more.
“Have I got a positive attitude about life? You bet. I have great doctors, great nurses and other staff, and I have a great relationship with them. I’m their patient, but I’m also their friend.”
He also has his strong faith and the love of family and friends that keep driving him forward.
“Life’s tough. You can call these things I’ve faced stumbling blocks, or you can call them dead ends. I call them stumbling blocks, and at 6’3”, I can step over them.”