Delaware Electric Cooperative CEO Rob Book expresses gratitude following life-changing event.

In the summer of 2023, Delaware Electric Cooperative President and CEO Rob Book was finishing up his first six months in the Co-op’s top job. He was enjoying the challenges associated with leading one of the largest distribution cooperatives in the country and was working long hours to improve employee morale and reinvigorate DEC’s spirit of innovation. By September, though, everything had changed. Rob was exhausted, struggling to stay focused and felt a growing sense of unease. After his condition deteriorated, Book was admitted to a local Delaware hospital the last week of September. By the following week, he was in the intensive cardiac care unit at the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia fighting for his life. When doctors told him and his family that his only chance of survival was a heart transplant, they were stunned.

“At first I couldn’t quite believe it,” Book says. “Up until that moment, I assumed I was relatively fine. The next thing I knew, I was in the hospital. My life, and the life of my family, had changed in the blink of an eye.”

Book spent two months in the hospital, praying for a suitable donor heart to become available to him. Bacteria from a virus had caused an infection in his heart, which was functioning at less than 20%. For his family, it was a frightening time. Book says the experience has made him more thankful for his life and the people in it — it also opened his eyes to just how deep those connections are with his employee family.

“My family and I are overwhelmed with gratitude for the love and support we have received from our Co-op family. To know that my friends and coworkers at DEC — almost 180 people — were here rooting for me, it really proves the inherent goodness in people, and I will never be able to say thank you enough,” says Book.

When DEC leadership announced Book’s circumstances companywide in October, the entire team came together to help and support him. Recognizing the necessity of keeping daily meals on the table during that stressful time, their first step was to start an online meal train where employees could sign up to make or order food for the family — ensuring more of their time could be spent with Rob, not preparing meals. Operations supervisor Josh Wharton, who organized the meal train system, attributes this response to the overwhelming sense of family and community DEC employees share with each other.

“One of the qualities that sets co-ops apart from other utilities is the family-like atmosphere where everyone not only knows each other, but their families as well. When tragedy strikes one of us, we all feel it,” Wharton says. “As expected, the DEC team was willing to do whatever they could to help ease the burden on Kara, Rob’s wife, while he was in the hospital, and that was evident when the meal train was started. Almost every night, a warm meal would be waiting for her when she got home, which turned out to be a huge help so that she could spend time with their children rather than stressing over dinner and everything it involves.”

In an effort to offer continued moral support, Co-op employees also held prayer circles for him, filled out and mailed cards and recorded video messages to be shared with him during his time in the hospital. DEC New service representative Gladys Aviles-Johnson, who led one of the prayer circles, says that being able to support Rob in that way made her feel “included and loved,” and that her faith in God guided her in leading employees in prayer.

“In Luke 16:10 it reads, ‘If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.’ Rob’s heart transplant was my large one, in that moment, to lead prayer for. I knew he needed my prayers and the group’s prayers going up for him,” Aviles-Johnson said. “For me it was all about knowing that when God is in it, there is no limit, and he was working it all out for his good. I think for Rob, knowing that we were all praying for him, and after reading the heartfelt cards and hearing those kind words, it lifted his spirits, and in that moment, he knew he was loved.”

Even though Book could not be physically present in the office, he continued to work in a limited, advisory capacity, guiding the direction of the Co-op while awaiting a transplant. In his absence, then vice president of technology Dwayne Street stepped up to the role of Chief Operating Officer. Street says that in their many conversations during this time, Book consistently asked about his DEC family and was keen to stay in the loop on the daily goings-on at the Co-op. His concern – even when facing such an intimidating diagnosis – provided the motivation that Street and the entire DEC workforce needed to stay strong themselves, and to continue to provide the quality electric service the Co-op has become synonymous with.

“It was important to me that when Rob asked, I could assure him that everything was running smooth back at headquarters,” Street says. “He cares so much about our team and the work we do at the Co-op, it was great to be able to tell him that our team was still upholding our commitment to our members; we were still keeping the lights on. I think that put him at ease some and allowed him to focus his energy and attention on the most important thing, which is his health.”

On several occasions while hospitalized, Rob’s heart essentially stopped. At one point, he woke up on the floor of the bathroom with doctors working to revive him.  By late October, Book was connected to the most advanced life support available to patients suffering from heart failure.

On Nov. 4, Rob and his family received the best gift they could have hoped for as the holiday season approached; a donor heart had been secured for Book — one that doctors viewed as a perfect match. Rob underwent a successful transplant the following day. DEC used its emergency texting notification program to alert employees that the surgery was successful. After a month of recuperation, Rob was finally able to return to the comfort of his own home, surrounded by his family.

“You don’t realize how much you take for granted until you’re in a hospital for 68 days. I am beyond grateful that I received a transplant as soon as I did, that I was able to come home, and that I still have time to share with the people I love,” Book says. 

“Our family is so blessed to have him back home with us,” Kara Book says. “We are so grateful for everything that the doctors and medical team at UPenn have done for him, and for the support everyone at the Co-op has shown us during this difficult time. To say that we have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love is an understatement. The prayers, phone calls, texts, meals and cards have just meant the world to us, and I know it really touched Rob and helped keep him motivated throughout his time in the hospital and through his surgery.”

Book says his recent health journey has also opened his eyes to the value and necessity of the organ donation program. According to organdonor.gov — a division within the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) — a new person is added to the waiting list for an organ transplant every eight minutes, with 103,223 currently awaiting transplants. In 2023, over 46,000 transplant surgeries were performed across the country.

Rob Book returns to the office with a warm welcoming.

“One of the most humbling aspects of being the recipient of an organ donation is realizing that in order for you to get that donation, someone else didn’t make it home to their loved ones,” Book says. “It’s a very sobering fact, and for me, it really put the gift I have been given – a new heart and a new opportunity to live my life — into perspective. I encourage everyone to sign up to be an organ donor. In doing so, you could be saving a life, and impacting many other lives in the process.”

On Feb. 7, Book received a very warm welcome back to DEC for the first time since his hospitalization in the fall. Employees cheered as Rob announced he’ll be working in the office in a part-time capacity. He tearfully thanked the team for their support over the prior months. “For me, coming back to work was an important step in my recovery. Not only did it provide me with a sense of normalcy, it gave me a chance to express appreciation to those who gave me hope and kept me going during some dark times. I’m so happy to be back in the office.”

Book speaks to employees at DEC headquarters on Feb. 9.

Join us in showing our support for Rob and his family — and co-op family — on Feb. 14, by wearing red. For those unable to wear red, just add some red to your photo using props or a background — be creative. Share your photos on social media using hashtags #Red4Rob and #HeartMonth and tag @Delaware Electric Cooperative and @VMDAEC.

If you wish to send photos or words of support to the DEC family, please email Jeremy Tucker at [email protected].

–Report by Chelsea Wooten, Communications Specialist, Delaware Electric Cooperative.