In October 2013, I lost my battle with a liver disease known as PSC, primary sclerosing cholangitis. It causes the bile ducts to swell up, and sometimes swell shut, which turns the body into a giant clogged toilet. When that happens, your skin turns yellow and your eyes do a great impression of Michael Jackson at the end of “Thriller.”
That’s exactly what happened to me that October, putting me in the hospital for two weeks. I had already been on the waiting list for a new liver, as many PSC patients are, but at a lower priority because of my stable condition. Now my listing had gone way up, and my rare blood type became a blessing and a curse: the waiting list was much shorter, but the available donors were scarce. So I was sent home, with the understanding that I may be waiting a week, a month, or several months before I got a call that a liver was available for me.
A day later, I got the call. My friends and family were relieved, but I was nervous. I knew what this was going to entail. It was going to be four hours in surgery, another week or so in the Intensive Care Unit, and several months — at least — of home care and recovery. It would mean leaving my apartment in NYC and moving to my mother’s home in Connecticut. It would mean being removed from my friends and career. Even though this transplant would give me the ability to go on living, I’d be losing so much.
Not being a religious person, I turned to my long list of movie heroes for inspiration and strength. One voice rang out loudest among the rest, the tired yet determined voice of a man who knows he’s going to lose but fights anyway, needing to prove himself: “All I wanna do is go the distance.” With his words echoing in my head, minutes before I went onto the operating table, I changed my phone’s lock screen to the iconic image of Rocky Balboa atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, using it as a beacon of willpower for me to follow.
The Rocky series, from the 1976 original to 2015’s Creed, has always been a fantastic source for motivation in the sports world. Yet the Rocky films aren’t just a paean to the potential of the human body. They’re a source of inspiration for the spirit, for anyone who’s ever felt like a loser or an underdog. With the training montage and the climactic boxing match, it’s easy to forget that the first two-thirds of Rocky is a street-level, kitchen-sink character drama. We spend enough time with the bum debt collector Rocky, his painfully shy crush Adrian, her domineering brother Paulie, and the has-been trainer Mickey, that when they pull themselves out of their dead-end lives (or not) we can’t help but relate. As wacky as the series gets, we’re always with Rocky and his friends thanks to the enormous emotional grounding that first film provides. It’s that relatability that made Rocky a mascot for me during my recovery. He’s just a regular guy who has endless willpower to keep going when “your hair hurts, your eyes hurt” and more, which certainly applied to me post-surgery.
The Rocky series’ iconic music also helped me during the recovery process. The score by Bill Conti from Rocky and the pop songs from III and IV are not only incredibly well utilized in their respective films, but major hits in their own right. Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” may have even surpassed Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now” as the signature Rocky tune, the syncopated guitar riff lending motivation to even the most mundane task. It, as well as the same group’s “Burning Heart,” Robert Tepper’s “No Easy Way Out,” and John Cafferty’s “Heart’s On Fire,” provided the soundtrack to my daily walks to the mailbox and back again — a difficult task after such a traumatic medical procedure. As my physical therapy continued with the music, I was able to make it farther each week, from the mailbox to the street to the next street, and finally the entire neighborhood. I felt as if I’d mastered a challenge as massive as scaling a snowy mountain.
The biggest thing that Rocky helped me heal wasn’t my body, however, but my mind. After going through the bulk of my 20s living not only with PSC but ulcerative colitis, a blood clot, and hyperthyroidism, it began to feel like the world was against my continued existence. In 2006’s Rocky Balboa, writer/director Sylvester Stallone once again put much of his own personal life into the character of Rocky and his journey. The movie’s central monologue is not only its emotional core, but a mantra that comforted me during the nearly year-long recovery process.
In the film, Rocky knows his chances for victory in the ring are slim, but once again his true opponent is himself. Just as my own body turned against me, Rocky’s pride and self-worth won’t let up. Summing it up for his spoiled young son, Rocky explains, “You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” Rocky teaches his kid, and me, that life doesn’t dictate winners and losers. You do. I knew I was going to “lose” when I entered that operating room, but I also knew, thanks to the inspiration from the Rocky series, that I could still win.
I went the distance, and I’m still here today. Thanks, Rock.
Bill Bria and his shiny new liver live in New York, where he runs up and down the subway steps every day.