Alan and Sherrie Conover
From the time he was 4 years old, Alan Conover was fascinated by trains. Every Sunday he and his father visited the railroad yard to watch, to listen and eventually, to ride. Decades later, as Alan continues his recovery and rehabilitation from a liver transplant, his heart is set on returning to his journeys aboard a historic rail car that he and his wife Sherrie restored. In the months following his May 23, 2013, liver transplant – performed by Drs. R. Mark Ghobrial and Howard Monsour in the J.C. Walter Jr. Transplant Center at Houston Methodist – Alan had two goals: get well enough to climb the rail car stairs and ride his train again; and give a generous bequest to Houston Methodist to help create the largest and best liver center in the nation.
Within two years of receiving his new lifesaving liver, he accomplished both goals. In April 2015, Alan and Sherrie – along with Dr. Ghobrial and his wife Kathy, Dr. Marc Boom and his wife Dr. Julie Boom, and Alan’s nephew Ed Jones, chief operating officer of the Houston Methodist Research Institute – took the J. Pinckney Henderson on a Houston-to-San Antonio train tour. Named after Texas’ first governor and called The Texas Special for its original route from St. Louis to San Antonio, the historic train attracted railroad enthusiasts all along the route. Made of stainless steel and the only rail car that was part of Amtrak’s experimental luxury service, this was The Texas Special’s first return trip since the original route ended in 1959. Although still weak and 150 pounds lighter than before his liver began failing, Alan was back on track, his wife of 32 years by his side as they visited with guests and cherished the ride.
The following June, they returned to Houston Methodist for a formal dedication of the Sherrie and Alan Conover Center for Liver Disease & Transplantation. The couple decided to give what they have – not just what they could. Their transformational $6.5 million commitment – a blended gift of current use and a bequest, and the first named center at Houston Methodist from generous benefactors from a state other than Texas – will provide resources for groundbreaking research to help more liver patients get the lifesaving treatments they need.
Alan and Sherrie have lived in Florida since retiring in the 1980s. He worked as a fireman in New York’s Hudson Valley for 20 years, and Sherrie was a reading specialist in the Newburgh, NY, school district. Their lives in retirement were packed with full-time adventure. Alan pursued his passion for trains with gusto, and the couple restored two historic train cars. They hosted their friends on rail trips all over the country, including a memorable rail trip to the Kentucky Derby. Life was full and good.
About four years ago, Alan’s lungs started collecting fluid. He couldn’t catch his breath and within a very short time, this generally healthy, active man became critically ill. His Florida doctors blamed the fluid buildup on a failing liver. And since Alan was over 70, doctors there told him he was too old for surgery and there was nothing they could do but drain the fluid periodically.
The Conovers weren’t willing to settle for a compromised life if there was hope. “I called Ed and asked, ‘What are we going to do about your Uncle Alan?’” Sherrie recalls. Jones immediately reached out to Dr. Monsour.
“When I got the call from Ed, it was no different than other calls we get, because there’s a philosophy within the liver program that we take all comers,” says Dr. Monsour, chief of hepatology. “Alan came with a particular problem and we were able to figure it out. It was a team effort. I can tell you with all sincerity that Alan being alive today – Sherrie’s just as much a part of that as every physician and worker at the hospital.” Sherrie usually knew Alan’s ‘labs’ before his doctors did. She had an eagle eye for red flags and bad numbers. When Drs. Monsour and Ghobrial first met Alan, he was very ill. Within three months, his liver disease was at a critical stage. Yet Dr. Ghobrial says he never considered not seeking a transplant. “I think a good center is one that’s able to treat sick patients and older patients with good outcomes,” Dr. Ghobrial says. “We’ve had excellent outcomes over time.”
Houston Methodist’s collaborative environment was critical to Alan’s post-transplant recovery. He suffered complications with his heart, requiring two aortic valve surgeries. Dr. Michael Reardon, a cardiothoracic surgeon with the Houston Methodist DeBakey Heart & Vascular Center and a valve expert, performed the surgeries. The Conovers credit all three doctors and their teams with saving Alan’s life.
“I don’t think there are any better people anywhere,” Alan says. In the months following his transplant, the couple started talking about how they could show their gratitude and appreciation to their doctors and nurses at Houston Methodist. “We don’t have any children,” Alan explains. “And this will do more good for more people.”
Despite his illness, Alan keeps his sense of mischief about him and notices weekly improvement in his health. He proudly shows a photo of a much heavier Alan Conover patting a sleeping cheetah on a refuge in Africa. “That was me before I went on the Ghobrial diet. I don’t recommend it,” he says.
Even when asked about the incredible and unexpected bequest, Alan responds that since they have no children, he didn’t really want to leave the money to his pets’ veterinarian when he passes. He has great one-liners and likes to make people laugh. But he and Sherrie also show a deep joy for the moment – a sincere appreciation for life that many people seem to overlook. “Each day as it comes,” Sherrie is fond of saying. They truly enjoy a delicious meal together, and they laugh a lot. They revel in the company of good friends and family, laughter and shared memories.
Most of all, they love to board the J. Pinckney Henderson for their next journey together, letting their lives roll with the rhythm of the rails.