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Robert Redford's Son's Agonising Weeks Following First & Failed Life-Saving Surgery

Edduin Carvajal
Oct 09, 2021
10:20 P.M.
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Robert Redford's son, James, struggled with a chronic condition for most of his life. For six months before undergoing his first surgery, James was in agonizing pain, and Robert felt powerless.


Seeing a loved one go through excruciating pain for months and being unable to help is heartbreaking. Actor and director Robert Redford knows it firsthand as his son, James Redford, suffered from ulcerative colitis his whole life.

Robert Redford and his son, James Redford, on December 6, 2018 in San Francisco, California and Robert in an interview with TIME | Photo: Getty Images - YouTube/TIME

Robert Redford and his son, James Redford, on December 6, 2018 in San Francisco, California and Robert in an interview with TIME | Photo: Getty Images - YouTube/TIME



Born in May 1962, James, who followed in his famous father's footsteps and was a filmmaker, started dealing with almost unbearable stomach pain, fevers, and weight loss during his teenage years.

At the time, his dad Robert and mom Lola Van Wagenen believed he simply caught a stomach bug. Depending on the occasion James' symptoms appeared, they would simply say that he was a "nervous child."

Still, stomach specialists at the Utah Medical Center ran tests and tried to discover what was wrong with him, but to no avail. Eventually, he started feeling that nobody was really paying attention to his symptoms to get a proper diagnosis.

Robert Redford and son James Redford in Hollywood, California in November 2003 | Photo: Getty Images

Robert Redford and son James Redford in Hollywood, California in November 2003 | Photo: Getty Images

James once admitted that his family would think he was just "freaking out again" every time his symptoms appeared. He didn't blame them, though.


Things changed in his senior year. He was watching a TV special on PBS and learned about a new procedure that could shed light on his problem: endoscopy in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Instead of bothering his parents, he made an appointment with a gastroenterologist on his own. After handing over previous tests and getting the endoscopy done, the doctor finally discovered he had a "serious ulcerative colitis condition" that needed urgent and radical treatment. James was just 15.


Ulcerative colitis is an uncommon, chronic condition in which the immune system attacks the bowel. It causes bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, weight loss, fatigue, and anemia.

It is essential to point out that it has no cure, but its symptoms can be treated. After learning about his son's illness, Robert told James that feeling "powerless to help was the worst feeling of all."

[James'] liver failed, his skin turned yellowish, and the abdominal pain was excruciating.



James once described the early stages of his condition as "horrible," especially because he was always worried that food would trigger symptoms. After trying many Western treatments, he turned to "all kids of voodoo potions," which didn't help, either.

Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come. When James was 25, his colitis spread to his liver, so another condition was added to the list: primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC).

PSC is even rarer than his original illness as it only affects two percent of ulcerative colitis patients. It causes fever, abdominal pain, and, occasionally, bile duct cancer.


At the time, doctors told him he would eventually need a liver transplant. They were right as only five years later, his liver failed, his skin turned yellowish, and the abdominal pain was excruciating.

The news of James' faulty liver came on the birthday of his wife. He once admitted she was the "strongest person" he had ever met, but his health issues "devastated" her. As per Robert, he could not imagine and would not tolerate the concept of losing his son. He added:

"I sat by his bedside and held his hand and told him, 'There's all sorts of right things I should say, but let me just cut to it: you have to get this devil off your back."



Six months after being he was put on the donor organ waiting list, a match was found for James. At the time, Robert was about to start shooting "Quiz Show," the 1994 film he produced and directed.

However, he left the production to join his son in a Nebraska hospital. On his way, Robert told James he wanted him to write a movie for Wildwood Enterprises Inc., his film and TV production company.

There was a one in four chance James wouldn't survive.


It was a "boost" for James as he didn't have many people to lean onto, but his father's gesture of hope gave him a reason to hang on. Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned.

After his eight-hour surgery, James felt that something wasn't right. Although his blood tests kept coming back okay, he could feel his body telling him the procedure didn't work.


The same day he was supposed to be sent home, doctors did an ultrasound test that showed a thrombosis on the hepatic artery, meaning that the donated organ was damaged beyond repair.

James was hospitalized again for four months, waiting for another positive liver match. According to Robert, it was the worst time of their lives. His condition was so frail that, by the time a second liver was found, he was "weeks away" from dying.



Finding another organ was just part of the problem as there was a one in four chance James wouldn't survive. Luckily, the procedure was successful, and James felt he would be okay as soon as he woke up from the surgery. He explained:

"It was a beautiful dawning, like someone turning on the sunshine again. Just a feeling of, 'Yes, this is right! This is how I have been waiting to feel all my life.'"


Eventually, James got part of his colon removed to treat his ulcerative colitis. A year after his second transplant, he was fully recovered and with an immense feeling of gratitude.

He admitted to requiring a long time to adjust his mind as he went through "a lot" during all the months he wondered if he would survive.



After such a traumatic ordeal, James founded the James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness in 1995 to educate people about organ and tissue donation.

Apart from that, he joined forces with his famous father to establish Redford Center: a nonprofit organization focused on using films to promote solutions to environmental issues.

Unfortunately, James dealt with cancer of the bile ducts and passed away on October 16, 2020. He was 58. After James' death, Robert admitted the grief was immeasurable and asked people to let him and his family mourn in privacy. Rest in peace.

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