Joshua Tehee

Music fan faced death until Fresno blues guitarist stepped in

Richie Blue and Caroline Jackson, after surgery. In June, Blue donated a piece of his liver to Jackson.
Richie Blue and Caroline Jackson, after surgery. In June, Blue donated a piece of his liver to Jackson. Special to The Bee

A year ago, Richie Blue and Caroline Jackson were, at best, acquaintances.

They’d met in passing at Central Valley Blues Society events: he as a guitarist and performer; she as a music lover and fan. Jackson talked casually with Blue’s wife, Marilyn, from time to time, not knowing the role Blue would eventually have in saving her life.

The pair are now bonded through personal sacrifice and a vital organ.

“I have a piece of his liver growing in me, with his DNA,” says Jackson, who has been battling liver disease for the past 15 years. In June, Blue underwent surgery as Jackson’s living donor. “He gave me my life back. Which I can never repay.”

“Obviously, we’re beyond close,” says Blue from his Fresno home, where he will recover for the next several weeks.

To aid in the recovery, the Blues Society is hosting a benefit concert at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 17, at Fulton 55 with bands and musicians Blue has worked with over the years, including 82 Deluxe, Monkey Wrench, Lucky Lopez with Baby Dee, Square 1, Deja Blues and the CVBS All-Stars.

Blue and Jackson plan to attend the show together.

Typically, patients like Jackson are put on a list to receive a transplant organ from a cadaver, though in California, the number of available organs doesn’t meet the need. Jackson has been looking for a living donor since 2013 and had already found and lost a match once before. That surgery was canceled three days before it was scheduled.

Jackson was put on new medicine, which kept her healthy until last year, when she was diagnosed with liver cancer. Suddenly, finding a donor took on grave importance.

Jackson’s husband began a new search for a living donor. He put a simple message on Facebook and a notice in the newspaper asking people to take the blood test. None of Jackson’s family or friends were a match.

There was good response, Jackson says. There were plenty of people who wanted to help, but most were disqualified as candidates early on. Most were too old to donate or had health issues of their own.

“The only one who qualified was Richie,” Jackson says.

That came as a shock to Blue, who had seen the request being shared among members of the Blues Society.

“I didn’t think it would go past the blood test,” he says.

The cut-off age for donors is 60. Blue was 59 at the time. And he wasn’t sure his liver was even in shape to be donated. In his younger days he was known to enjoy a drink or two, though usually more. He figured the doctors might tell him he needed a new liver, too.

“I used to drink like a pirate,” he says.

In all, the screening process took close to eight months of driving back and forth to the Bay Area for the dozens of tests Blue needed. There was an MRI and CAT scan. There were psychological and memory evaluations and a stress test where Blue ran, flat out, for 12 minutes. Then, he held his breath while doctors listened to his heart, which he thought was going to explode. Even after the surgery, there are follow-up appointments Blue has to keep. He goes in for another MRI in August. Eventually, those checkups will be just once a year.

“There was fear all the way through,” Blue says.

What kept him going was the knowledge that without his help Jackson would die. It wasn’t likely she’d die – it was a sure thing. Doctors gave Jackson a nine-month window to find a donor. After August, it would be too late.

Both patients are now out of the hospital and healing well.

Blue walks with a cane now and has some trouble catching his breath. The surgery cut through his diaphragm. He’s not back to singing quite yet, but he can play guitar if he’s sitting down. He had his first test run on stage last weekend, though it will be several months before he’s back to his schedule of playing seven gigs a week. He’s worried he will lose the calluses on his fingers.

Both are ready for the pain of the operation to be gone, Jackson says. And both are humbled by the outpouring of support they have seen since the operation. That is especially true for Blue, who is being called a hero. He doesn’t see himself that way. His role, while obviously important, was a very small part of the overall process.

“There really are so many people involved,” he says. “I was just a mere cog in the wheel.”

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee

Team Caroline Fundraiser

  • 4 p.m. Sunday, July 17
  • Fulton 55, 875 Divisadero St.
  • $15-$20
  • 559-412-7400,