GRANDVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — As Jeff Muller laced up his shoes for a training run on Wednesday, he thought of the hundreds of runners that would be alongside him at the River Bank Run 5k aiming for the finish line. But for years, all he could think about was getting to the starting line.
“It’s going to be pretty emotional Saturday, strapping the shoes on and actually getting down there,” said Muller.
Muller has been hooked on running since he was 10 years old, when he saw his dad participate in the River Bank Run 25k.
“I actually jumped in and joined him for the last two miles of the race,” said Muller.
Muller has always been a fit and healthy runner, despite living with an autoimmune disease that affects his liver. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis 25 years ago, but he’s been able to maintain his health through medications.
That was until 2018, when he realized something was wrong.
“I was going out for a training run and after about 30 seconds, I was completely winded, I was tired, and I just thought, ‘Well, maybe I’m sick,'” said Muller.
Eventually, doctors discovered that Muller would need a liver transplant.
He was seen at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, but after four years of treatment, his health started to take a turn for the worse.
“I became pretty immobile. So not only could I not run, I couldn’t walk, all I could do was basically lie in bed, sit in a chair,” he said.
In June his condition was so life-threatening that he reached the top of the transplant list, and on July 5 a prayer was answered.
“I got a call from Henry Ford Hospital saying they had a liver for me,” he said.
He was rushed to Detroit for surgery to undergo the 10-hour procedure that would save his life.
“The next day I woke up, and I just was so thankful to be alive,” Muller said.
But his recovery was far from over when his body started to reject the donor liver. He lost 50 pounds and spent months in the hospital. He was eventually put back on the transplant list.
“My wife and I just couldn’t believe it … we couldn’t imagine going through this process again,” he said.
In September, they received another call that answered another prayer, and Jeff went through his second transplant surgery in just three months. That one was successful, and that’s when he set the goal to lace up his sneakers again.
“A year ago I was in such poor health, I though, ‘There’s no way I could do this.’ Now with a new lease on life from these organ donors, I started re-thinking things and like, ‘Oh yeah, now I can do that,'” said Muller.
Getting back in shape would take some time. He started getting physical therapy at Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital in Grand Rapids, running on an antigravity treadmill.
“Which was a huge deal to go from lying in a hospital bed for three, four months to actually running again. I can’t explain the feeling. It was just amazing,” said Muller.
By February, he was back to running on his favorite trail.
“I was happy to be out there, just to be outside,” he said.
He’ll be even happier when he finishes his first race in nearly six years, thanks to the two deceased donors that saved his life.
“There’s two people that offered their organ to me. I wouldn’t be here without them,” he said.
His transplant journey had a happy ending, and he’s hoping others will get that chance too. That’s why he’s running to spread awareness for organ donation and encouraging others to sign up to be a donor.
“You have a second chance at life, so what are you going to do with your life? And so my life is all about helping people,” he said.