Dad's colleague helps Trumbull teen get liver transplant
Jay Leos has always heard that police officers and firefighters are members of a brotherhood. Now Leos, a Trumbull police officer, has indisputable evidence.
On Sept. 21, one of his fellow officers, Michael Gonzalez, underwent surgery at Yale-New Haven Hospital to have a piece of his liver removed so it could be donated to Leos' 15-year-old daughter Kyleigh. The Trumbull teenager was born with biliary atresia, a blockage of the tubes that carry bile from the liver to the gallbladder. Because of her condition, she needed a procedure called Kasai almost immediately after birth. The surgery connects the liver to the small intestine, going around the abnormal ducts. The procedure was successful, but the Leos family knew Kyleigh would probably need a liver transplant one day.
As that day drew closer, the family began to despair at finding a donor. Gonzalez's decision was nothing short of a miracle, said Jay Leos, also a lieutenant with the Long Hill Fire Department. "It's just unbelievable."
A frightening journey
For years Jay Leos thought he would be the one sacrificing a piece of himself for Kyleigh. Early tests showed that he was a match, and would be a good candidate when the time came. But, as the years passed, additional tests were developed -- tests that eventually ruled Leos out as a donor. In fact, a total of seven potential donors, including many of Kyleigh's family members, were eventually ruled out. That discovery hit the family hard. "We had always thought that Jay would be the donor," said Kyleigh's mother Dawn Leos. "It was really scary to find out that we weren't going to be able to do it ourselves."
The family's situation grew particularly scary earlier this year, when Kyleigh's health went rapidly downhill. She began experiencing compromised kidney function, jaundice and other signs that her liver was failing. "The clock was ticking for her," said Dr. Sukru Emre, director of the Yale-New Haven transplant center.
He told the Leos family that Kyleigh needed a transplant as soon as possible, so they frantically searched for potential donors any way they could. Earlier this year, a blood drive was held with the primary purpose of finding potential donors for Kyleigh. It was there that Gonzalez, who lives in Stratford, learned he and Kyleigh had the same blood type and he decided to go for further testing. "When I first started to get tested, I wasn't even thinking `I'm definitely going to do it,'" Gonzalez said. "It was just `Let me go see.'"
Worth the sacrifice
After extensive testing, which included blood work, a CT scan, and a host of other assessments, Gonzalez learned he was a match. He knew that, if he agreed to go through with the donation, he'd be in for a tough time. Though the liver regenerates itself after the surgery, it typically takes six to eight weeks to grow back. He also would have to take it easy for several months while the incisions from the surgery healed. That included taking at least three months off from work. Despite all that, Gonzalez said he never felt like he could say no to being Kyleigh's donor. "It's a couple of months out of my life to, hopefully, save her life," he said.
The gesture was greeted with gratitude, not only by the Leos family, but by Emre, who said it's often difficult to get people to register as donors, because there are a variety of misconceptions about the process. For instance, according to Donate Life America, a nationwide organization that promotes organ, eye and tissue donation, 52 percent of people incorrectly believe that doctors might not try as hard to save the lives of donors following an accident. But donors are badly needed. Donate Life reports that more than 100,000 people need transplants, and 18 people die each day from the lack of organs for transplants.
Thus, Emre said, Gonzalez's willingness to step up and help a friend's child was encouraging. "It was a very lucky situation, and an amazing, altruistic act on his part," Emre said.
Kyleigh, meanwhile, said she was both "excited and nervous" when she found out that the liver transplant was finally going to happen. "I was excited, because the diseased part of my liver was coming out of me," she said. But she was worried at the prospect of the surgery. Like Gonzalez, she has a significant recovery time ahead of her. She'll have to miss at least three months of school and up to six months, depending on when doctors clear her to return (though she will likely have a tutor at home by next month). And, for the first month after the surgery, she has to see Emre twice a week to make sure she's healing properly and that there isn't any rejection or infection.
But, so far, she and Gonzalez are both doing well. After short stays in the hospital, they're already back at home. Sure, laughing, hiccuping and other common bodily reactions are a little painful for them, due to the large incisions on their abdomens they received during surgery. Yet Emre said overall, the operation seems to be a success, and Kyleigh's health appears much improved.
Jay Leos said he's still amazed by what Gonzalez did for his family, and that it's a testament to the bond that exists among police officers. "This is a prime example of that," he said. "The outcome is just unbelievable."