Bellingham cancer survivor reaches 40th year without a pancreas

Allen Herrick feels he has been a medical miracle for 40 years, but he doesn’t know why.

Today, the 61-year-old Bellingham resident marks four decades of living without a pancreas.

“As far as I know, I’m the only person in the United States who has lived that long without a pancreas,” he says. “Maybe the world, too. That’s what people have told me. But I have no real idea why I’ve survived.”He recently self-published a 450-page book, “Four Seasons of Life,” under the pen name “Sonny Boy.”

“That’s always been my nickname,” he said. “Because of my affiliation with a 12-step group, I didn’t want to write it under my real name.”

Herrick, a lifelong resident of Whatcom County, and his family medical history were the subject of a study in a 1969 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Question: What led doctors to remove your pancreas? Isn’t that fatal?

Answer: It usually is, since it’s the organ that controls your blood sugar. I was 21 when they removed my cancerous pancreas. They told me I would probably die soon, but I’m still here!

Q: So, do you live the same regimen as a diabetic?

A: Yes. I’m insulin-dependent. I’ve given myself shots daily for 40 years.

Q: Were you able to hold a job?

A: After I graduated in the class of 1964 from Everson High School, I had a lot of problems and fears. But I studied bookkeeping in school, so after my surgery, I held a job as an accountant at Western Washington University for 20 years, until I was laid off in 1991. I’ve been on disability since then.

Q: To look at you, it’s hard to believe you’re a medical miracle. You’re trim, fit and somewhat active, right?

A: Sure. About 15 years ago, I took up nature photography, and now I have an intense passion for it. And I love to travel. My goal is is to shoot photos in all the national parks from the Rocky Mountains westward. I’ve also kept a daily log of local weather conditions, with the help of friends when I’ve traveled. The log will be 50 years as of 2010.

Q: Based on your book, one of the big stories of your life is how you quit drinking cold turkey.

A: I’ve been sober for 20 years, or since I suffered my 38th severe blackout, or diabetic coma. I know how many it was because I kept a diary. The doctor told me if I kept drinking, I would die. I didn’t want to die, so I quit drinking on Oct. 3, 1987.

Q: Surely, you must have had some help.

A: I did. I began going to a 12-step group at the urging of a friend. I was scared, but I stayed, and I’ve been attending meetings every day since. Even when I travel, I find a 12-step meeting. There’s a spiritual strength in the program. It’s a program that works. I feel I have a purpose and I want to help people. So many people have helped me.

Q: Your in-depth book is pretty amazing, considering you have no training as a writer.

A: That’s true, but I’ve always written. In school, I was an honor roll student. It took me 5½ years to write my book. When I was young, whenever I would get frustrated or have trouble dealing with my fears, I would write my feelings down in a note to myself. I kept the notes in a shoebox, and I wound up with eight shoeboxes full!

I had a doctor a long time ago, Robert Williams, who told me that if I survived having my pancreas removed, he wanted me to tell people about my life. I really do feel I’m here for a reason.

Q: Did you inherit would health problems?

A: Both my grandfather and father died of pancreatic disease. My dad died at 62, after living for only two years after he had his stomach removed. My grandfather was a young man when he died. They both had bleeding ulcers, and I had much of the same problems. I had an older sister and a younger sister, and they both died of pancreatic cancer. The name for the disease is nesidioblastosis.

Q: You had more than your pancreas removed, right?

A: Yes. I had severe burns caused by stomach acid released through my anxiety, depression and fear. They took out 90 percent of my stomach, as well as my pancreas, my large intestine and part of my small intestine.

At the time of my surgery, I weighed 287 pounds. Soon I was down to 150 and feeling better. Now I’m about 130.

Q: Is all this one reason you’ve never had children?

A: I’ve been a life-long bachelor. What I went through, I told myself I never wanted kids to suffer with what I’ve had.

Q: How about the rest of your family?

A: My mother died two years ago in Bellingham at the age of 84. I helped her as much as I could, especially after my sisters died.

Q: What’s your diet like?

A: I can eat fish and poultry but I stay away from red meat. I can’t eat pizza, pancakes and waffles. I can’t eat spicy, greasy or oily foods.

Q: What’s your philosophy in a nutshell?

A: What I like to say is, “Life is a journey, so enjoy the ride.” I still am!