Having emerged revitalized from the dark shadows of a cancer diagnosis in 2011, Kevin Lines just might be the miracle worker Minnesota pheasants need.
The astonishing comeback this week of Lines, 60, to the front lines of wildlife conservation didn’t earn quite the same response that another Kevin did when he rejoined the Timberwolves on Wednesday night.
But Lines’ story, itself a tale of teamwork and long shots, is no less inspiring.
Lines, who retired in 2012 from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, on Monday began spearheading what ringneck enthusiasts hope is an ambitious public-private effort to restore Minnesota’s pheasants.
Roadside surveys last August showed pheasants 58 percent below the 10-year state average and 71 percent below the long-term average. Habitat loss due to intensive farming is the main culprit.
“The last thing I wanted to do was retire,” Lines said. “But my cancer had morphed into an aggressive form, and my doctors and family thought it best that I focus on my health.”
Thus Lines — who grew up in Milaca, Minn., and earned a wildlife management degree at the U — walked out on 38 years of resource management at the Department of Natural Resources as well as BWSR.
When he retired, his blood type was O negative.
Now, after a successful stem cell transplant at the U, Lines’ blood type is B positive.
But nothing has changed about his widely acknowledged dedication to the state’s woods, waters and fields.
“The doctors said my main problem was that my immune system wasn’t working correctly,” Lines said. “They believed a stem cell transplant would help.”
But none of his siblings had the very specific match required of willing donors. So Lines, like thousands of others in similarly dire circumstances, placed his name on a national registry.
For many people, the story ends there. No match. No miracle.
But in late November 2012, Lines received a phone call, saying a match had been found.
“They wanted to know if I wanted to go ahead and I said, ‘Definitely,’ ” Lines said. “The donor had to agree also, and would have to go into a hospital and miss some work. Also, the bone marrow extraction process is somewhat painful. But he agreed to do it right away.”
On Dec. 11, 2012, Lines was admitted to the U hospital, under the care of a team led by oncologist Dr. Celalettin Ustun. Given five straight days of chemotherapy, followed by a day of radiation, all intended to kill his bone marrow, he was ready on the seventh day for the transplant.
“It didn’t hurt,” he said. “It was about the same as a blood transfusion.”
In the weeks, months and years since, Lines has been on the mend.
“Until a year after the procedure, they won’t give you information about who the donor was,” Lines said. “When that time came, I asked, and the donor also had to be asked, and when he said, ‘Yes,’ I was given his name and phone number. I called right away.”
No one answered. Lines left a message.
A return call came immediately.
On the line was Jason Johnson, then 38, who lives in a small Kentucky town. The two have since become fast friends, and on June 29 of last year, Johnson, his wife Jennifer, and their two daughters, Kaylea and Kenzie, were among a throng of friends and family who surprised Lines and his wife, Mindy, on their 40th wedding anniversary.
“This summer, our family will head to Kentucky to meet Jason’s friends and family,” Lines said.
But first, there’s pheasant work to be done.
And Lines’ extensive background as a private lands habitat manager and wildlife supervisor makes him an ideal choice to lead the way.
So Lines this week began his second career at the DNR’s St. Paul headquarters, sitting at a desk only 20 feet from where he had earlier spent 10 years of his work life.
His job, along with other state resource and agriculture experts, as well as those from private conservation groups, is to develop a master plan for state pheasant recovery, and coordinate its implementation.
“We know this project is important, and we know Gov. Dayton wants to get it done,” Lines said. “This is the kind of work I’ve done for a long time, and I can get up to speed quickly on it.
“It’s a miracle, really, that I can even come back to work.
“I think I can make a difference.”
Dennis Anderson email@example.com
More information about donating bone marrow is online at bethematch.org.