Harley Don Baker walked into a Starbucks in Euless on a Wednesday afternoon looking healthy and fit.
A far cry from the child who graced the pages of the Messenger decades ago, he is bald, with a beard, and stands at average height.
He’s 28 now – 26 years removed from the liver transplant that changed his life, made it possible for him to have a life.
It’s likely Harley Don Baker’s name is still familiar to many in this area.
Born with biliary atresia, a blockage in the ducts that transport bile from the liver to the gallbladder, Baker became a minor celebrity in Wise County back in the late 80s, when several fundraisers and benefits were held to raise money for his liver transplant.
Baker finally got his new liver as a two-year-old in 1989 – something he’s been thankful for ever since. But aside from the fact that he has someone else’s liver, he’s just like most other members of the millennial generation.
He waited seven years to get married to his longtime girlfriend, Anna, in 2012, and says that they’re waiting to have kids. He’s gone from job to job trying to find one that fulfills him, including a 10-year stint in retail and a short time as a corrections officer at Bridgeport PD.
He is a Christian who believes in Jesus, but says he is still “searching and researching everything about that, because I want to understand what I believe.” And he’s come to terms with the fact he’s still alive, although that, too, has taken some time.
“I grew up with this deep sense of ambition, ’cause I was told, ‘God saved you for a reason,’” he said. “I would think, ‘I’ve got to achieve big things, I’ve got to make things of myself.’
“I felt like most of my life I was living for two people – myself, and the person who donated me their liver.” It was a lot to live up to.
Baker said once he understood he could create meaning from what happened by just living life to the fullest, he became a lot happier.
“I’ve come to realize, there’s a lot of different meanings for success,” Baker said. “So my goal is no longer to be a superhero or the president of the United States or an astronaut or a lawyer. The goal now is to take the life that I’ve been given and live it to the most meaningful that I can – be the best husband to my wife that I can, be as good as a human being to others as I can.”
He said he is indeed grateful for the support he received from Wise County as a youngster, and hopes it didn’t go unnoticed as he grew up.
“Every time I look at old pictures, it’s eye-opening. I see things that I haven’t seen before,” he said. “There’s a picture of me as a kid with the Dallas Cowboys. For me? That little guy? It’s eye-opening, and it was awesome that people could come together to help my family.
“The people of Wise County deserve to know what they did was helpful, and that I’m happy.”
More than $67,000 was raised for Baker’s new liver in 1989. He said the biggest thing the transplant gave him was an appreciation for life.
“Because, not only did I almost not make it, there was a child who didn’t make it, so I could live,” Baker said. “I don’t understand how anybody could go through something like that and not have an appreciation for life.”
Baker still has to check in with a doctor once a month, and takes medication for his liver. Alcohol is out of the question, and his diet has to be carefully regulated, as does his exercise regimen. He has a sonogram twice a year and an angiogram – a procedure where a camera examines blood vessels through catheter insertion – once a year. He can’t eat too soon before bed, or his gastritis will flare up and cause him pain when he wakes up the next day.
“But all that said, that’s why I’m here,” he said. “I wouldn’t take it back for nothin’.”
In fact, he’s still getting help from Wise County – a trust fund remains in place at First Methodist Church for any medical expenses Baker might experience as a result of his liver transplant.
Dr. Charles Cocanaugher, who was on the Decatur Chamber of Commerce at the time of the trust fund’s inception, said more than $40,000 was raised for the fund after Baker’s transplant, and that about half of that remains now. It’s currently managed by The First Methodist Church of Decatur.
“[Harley's] story is just a miracle, and I think that trust fund is just a testament to our community pitching in to help him,” Cocanaugher said.
One gets the feeling that perhaps because he received so much attention as a child, Baker doesn’t want much attention as an adult. Instead of being photographed for this article, Baker provided a photo of him and his wife, Anna, on their wedding day two years ago.
Baker said he was always at a loss for words whenever someone he didn’t know would talk to him about the transplant.
“It always felt weird, but I was thankful at the same time,” Baker said. “That was the feeling I always got whenever I ran into someone, it would always be, ‘I remember you, I remember the donation jars, I remember seeing this in the newspaper,’ and I wouldn’t know how to respond, so I would always just put on a big smile and say ‘Thank you!’”
As for Baker’s life now, he enjoys his new job operating a forklift at FedEx freight in Fort worth, where he has worked part-time for the last four months. He and Anna, 25, met at Buck’s BBQ, now Bono’s, when he was working in retail in Decatur after he graduated from Weatherford College.
He hopes to go full-time at FedEx soon. Anna is working part-time at a law firm in Fort Worth. They are living life to the fullest, enjoying every moment.
“You can find things in life that bring you joy.”