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Port officer in a fight for his life PDF Print E-mail
Feature
Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM   
Wednesday, 10 January 2018 19:17

Fellow cops, family plan fundraisers to help Gary Belzer as he battles an insidious disease that has turned his life on end and left him in need of a new liver

    As a Port Washington police officer, Gary Belzer lives by the motto “To Serve and Protect.”
    But he has adopted a new motto as well: “Donate Life,” to promote blood and organ donation.
    It’s a cause that is close to Belzer, his wife Kristin and sons Colton, 14, and Gavin, 12, because last June Belzer was placed on the liver transplant list.
    “I’m hoping that this situation gets the word out on organ donation,” Belzer said. “I feel this is part of my calling as a police officer now — if I can express this need and one or two people decide to donate, I know I did my job.”
    Belzer has non-alcoholic cirrhosis hepatitis, aka NASH, which has destroyed roughly three-quarters of his liver.
    GUY LGThe disease has caused numerous health issues for Belzer since he was diagnosed in 2015.
    In addition to liver failure, his spleen is enlarged. He’s had a number of operations, and has suffered complications each time, has iron infusions every other week and is scheduled for his fourth hernia surgery in two weeks — hernias are a complication of the disease.
    “It’s turned our world upside down a lot,” Kristin said. “It’s been a roller coaster. There are days he’s having a bad day so we just lay low and let him rest.”
    Belzer said he tries to maintain his active life. He is active with his sons’ sports teams, serving as an assistant coach for their basketball, football and baseball teams,  as well as his career.
    “I don’t want this to control my life,” Belzer said. “But I literally don’t know day-by-day how I’m going to feel. I’m still keeping active in the community, but it gets harder and harder.
    “Right now, I’m comfortable with working, but eventually it’s going to get to the point my health takes priority over work. I think that’s coming sooner rather than later.”
    Belzer’s sisters, Lynn Fojut and Marie Belzer, with the backing of the Port police department, are hosting a fundraiser for him at the Patio in Port at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27. The event will include a raffle and silent auction, as well as food and beverages.
    All proceeds will go to pay Belzer’s medical bills.
    Any funds that aren’t used by Belzer will be donated to another family in need.        The Port Washington High School Gridiron Club is planning a pancake breakfast benefit for Belzer on March 10 at Thomas Jefferson Middle School, and the Masons are holding a blood drive in Belzer’s honor on Jan. 27 at the Masonic Center in Port.
    As hard as it is for Belzer to deal with his disease, it’s equally hard for him to be the center of attention. He’d rather just be a cop and a dad, he said.
    Belzer said he’s wanted to be a police officer since he was a student at Port Washington High School. He was drawn, he said, to the variety and excitement of police work, combined with the fact that an officer’s main job is to help people.
    A 1989 graduate of Port High, he served as an Explorer Scout with the Port Police Department. He attended Western Wisconsin Tech for a year, then earned his criminal justice degree at Milwaukee Area Technical College.
    Belzer, who was a Port reserve officer, became a part-time deputy with the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department in 1992, then was hired full time in 1997.
    He worked with an Arizona police department for a few years, then served on the Thiensville Police Department for nine years before joining Port’s force almost two years ago.
    “I’ve always wanted to work here,” he said.
    It was while he was working for the Thiensville department in 2014 that the first indications of a problem came up during a regular physical exam. His platelet count was low, and when his doctor retested him the count was even lower.
    His doctor began running tests to determine the cause, but it took a year and a half before they found out what was wrong with him, Belzer said.
    At the Port Pumpkin Run, Christopher Budny, Belzer’s doctor, called to ask Belzer how he was feeling. It was a time, Kristin said, when their friends were telling them that Belzer wasn’t looking good, asking if he was OK.
    “He (Budny) kept asking, ‘Are you having these feelings? Are you having those symptoms?’ Gary just kept saying yes,” Kristin recalled. “He said, ‘I need you at the emergency room now. I don’t care if you come by ambulance or your wife drives you, but we need you there now.”
    When they arrived at the hospital, Belzer was immediately taken in for emergency surgery. Four esophageal varices — abnormal enlarged veins in the throat and stomach — had burst and Belzer had lost two liters of blood during the previous three days.
    “The doctors told her (his wife) that I was 24 hours from not waking up,” Belzer said.
    A liver biopsy confirmed he had the disease, Belzer said.
    Every three to four weeks now, Belzer goes to the doctor to check the varices.
    “He’s had two or three other close calls in the last 18 months,” Kristin said.
    Belzer has a firm advocate in his sister Lynn Fojut, a research technician at Froedtert Hospital in Milwaukee. Through her, Belzer met his doctor Johnny Hong, head of the transplant unit at Froedtert.
    A little more than a year ago, Kristin recalled, a doctor told Belzer he would have to go on the transplant list in 10 to 15 years. But the disease damaged his liver quicker than they expected, and Belzer was placed on the list in June.
    A transplant is the only way to cure the disease, Belzer said.
    But there are a number of obstacles in his way. His liver is so bad he needs a complete liver transplant, not a partial one. The donor has to be a perfect match with Belzer’s relatively rare blood type, B positive, who is roughly the same size and weight as Belzer.
    And there is no chemical or mechanical way to sustain Belzer while he waits for a transplant, like dialysis for kidney disease.
    When he has the transplant, surgery will take 10 to 12 hours. He’ll be in the intensive care unit for 24 hours to see if the liver takes. If it does, he’ll have surgery again to connect the bile ducts.
    Belzer’s old liver will then be used for research.
    Belzer said he’s been told to expect that he will be out of work for eight months, and he’ll face the chance of his body rejecting the organ for three to four months. He’ll be on anti-rejection medication, which they estimate will cost $500 a month, for the rest of his life.
    The Port police department, which hired him shortly after he was diagnosed, has been “terrific,” Belzer said.
    “I told them upfront what I was facing, and they hired me anyway,” he said. “They told me, ‘If this takes a couple years to straighten out, it’s a bump in the road. We know what kind of officer we’re getting.’”
    But for now, he’s still got those bumps in the road to deal with, and he’s doing it with his sense of humor and humility.
    “I don’t think I’m special,” he said. “There are other people out there suffering worse than I am. Think about kids with cancer. What could be worse than that?
    “For me, what I have is life threatening, but it could be a lot worse.”

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