Stories of Hope: California State Senator Tom Berryhill

tom_berryhill 230x488Senator Tom Berryhill is a fourth-generation California farmer who has been active in many community groups and business organizations throughout California’s San Joaquin Valley. However, his work as a farmer and future as an elected public servant would have ended without a heart transplant. His children would have been left without a father and his wife without her husband. Today, in good health, he is a member of the California State Senate working tirelessly on behalf of his constituents and enjoying time with his family. He is the only elected official in the United States who is a heart transplant recipient.

However, in the late 1990s, as a relatively young man, his chronic heart problem went from bad to worse, eventually leaving him in need of a new heart.  In May 2001 he underwent a transplant at California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) in San Francisco.

“Now I have all the energy in the world to do the things I love. I fish, ski, exercise regularly and have energy left to take on the Legislature,” said Tom. “To be healthy now is really, really exciting. Once someone has gone through what I have, it gives you a different outlook, absolutely. Every single day that I’m here is a day that I wouldn’t have seen without the transplant.”

Remembering the finals days as a race for life, hoping a new heart could be found and transplanted before his kidneys gave out, Tom thought about Samantha, his then six-month-old daughter. “If I don’t make it, she’s never going to remember who her dad was,” he worried. “That also gave me a very strong will to see it through a successful transplant.”

He remembers praying for a new heart but not wanting a donor to die.

“The sobering reality many transplant recipients face is the knowledge that someone has to lose a life to save yours. That is just a debt that can never be repaid – except by embracing every day as a gift and living it to the fullest,” he commented. “My donor’s sacrifice, and the absolute tragedy it was for his family, is something I don’t take for granted. I have had the great opportunity to pay it forward by serving California and this country as a legislator. Representing the same area in the Legislature that my dad did 30 years ago is an honor. And receiving another chance to enjoy each day with my family – that’s a gift.”

Like farming, public service runs in his family. Tom’s father, the late Clare Berryhill, was a former lawmaker and state agriculture director. Tom was elected to the California State Assembly in 2006 and then to the Senate in 2010. Tom represents the 14th Senate District in the California State Legislature where he serves on the Senate Agriculture, Energy, Utilities and Communications, Governmental Organization, Human Services and Veterans Affairs committees. He was a co-author and vocal supporter of the legislation that created Living Donation California, an information and referral program that encourages Californians to consider living kidney donations.

He notes that, “When dealing with organ and tissue transplants, any effort is fulfilling, as the good that comes out of the process is immeasurable.”

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