Sharing a Liver, Saving a Life

Posted February 2, 2009 at 6:44pm

Fifteen years separate Special Agents Noel Gleason and Shannon Croom, but not much else.

Both have an acute sense of humor — Gleason’s lighthearted and friendly, Croom’s unexpected and dry. Neither can stay still; neither enjoys a desk job. Both love the unexpected moments that come from escorting Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) around the city and the country.

And as of July 31, they share the same liver.

On that day, doctors at Georgetown University Hospital cut Croom open and removed 60 percent of his healthy liver. Then they gave it to Gleason, whose liver had failed because of a rare disease that causes the bile ducts to scar and clog.

For Croom, the risk of death was less than 1 percent. But the surgery was invasive and painful, requiring close to two months of recuperation and two years of checkups. A donor also has to go through a battery of tests — MRIs, cardiac stress tests, X-rays and counseling, among others.

But Croom, 31, said in a recent interview that he never considered backing out. Being a donor match for Gleason, he said, was more of a relief. It meant Gleason would live.

“I wasn’t very hesitant,” Croom said, then gave a small smile. “I was, for a few days there, looking up everything I could find. But then I just decided to stop because it just became a little scary.”

Six months after the surgery, both men look fully recovered, back at work on the Pelosi detail of the Capitol Police’s Dignitary Protection Division. Croom’s liver has regenerated, and he’s been back on full-time duty since September.

Gleason, 46, runs four miles every other day — just one mile less than he did before his liver failed and his world suddenly changed.

Shellshocked

For the first time in 20 years of marriage, Patti Gleason had left the kids alone with her husband and gone on vacation. She spent that week in May with her mother, enjoying warm afternoons on the beach in Hilton Head Island, S.C.

“I told her I got this. I can take care of the house, take care of the kids, I got it,” Gleason said. “I guess it was about two days after she left I started to feel different. I started to feel sick. Something wasn’t right and it wasn’t like the flu or anything like that.”

Gleason was bleeding internally from a vein that had burst in his stomach. But he didn’t go to the hospital until three days later, denying that anything serious was wrong — “as all husbands do,” said Patti, who has a degree in nursing.

Gleason’s condition didn’t come as a complete surprise.

Diagnosed 20 years ago with primary sclerosing cholangitis, he knew his liver might one day fail. The rare disease causes the bile duct to clog, building up pressure that enlarges other organs and causes internal bleeding.

But it seemed like a distant reality. Gleason visited a gastroentomologist every six months, keeping an eye on a disease that so far had stayed in check.

Most days, he lived as if he didn’t have the disease at all. Conversations about a future transplant took place, but they did not seem real. Gleason was convinced he might never need one; in every other aspect, he was healthy.

That changed in May. A few days after Gleason’s near-fatal bout of gastric bleeding, doctors told him he would need a transplant — quickly.

“It felt like we’d been in a car accident,” Gleason said. “We knew that that was a possibility, but we didn’t think that it was a possibility right now — that it was something that was going to happen at that meeting. So we were kind of shellshocked.”

Finding a Match

In less than a week, Noel and Patti Gleason went from planning their summer vacation to telling their two children, ages 10 and 14, about their father’s life-threatening condition.

Friends set up fundraisers, while co-workers donated sick leave.

But Gleason wasn’t worried about finding a donor. Doctors at Georgetown were experienced in performing “living donor” transplants — a recent technique that eliminates the need to wait months or years for a cadaver’s liver.

Two of his three siblings appeared to be a match. All that was left, it seemed, was for one of them to jump through the hoops of testing and the medical bureaucracy.

But in June, Patti called Gleason at work and, in tears, told him that neither was a match. Stuck at a desk in a Capitol basement office, surrounded by cubicles and paperwork, Gleason felt helpless. As concerned colleagues looked on, he walked out, got in his car and drove home.

“Usually I’m able to speak quite easily, but sometimes there’s emotions you can’t put into words,” Gleason said in a recent interview. “The depth that I went to sitting at that desk with the phone in my hand is just something I’ve never experienced before in my life. I just felt like I was kind of adrift, I didn’t know where I was going to go from there.”

Patti Gleason knew that some people wait years for a liver and die without ever finding a match. As a nurse, she also knew the severity of Noel’s condition and the slim likelihood that someone unrelated would risk their life to save another.

Noel worried about telling his children — Cameron and Mara — that he could die.

Both are “somewhat hardened,” he said. For years, Patti has struggled with a heart condition that brings late-night rescue squads to their Haymarket, Va., home.

“But it hurt,” he said, “to think that I would have to go to them and explain to them that we don’t know what we’re going to do now.”

Gleason never had to have that conversation. As he drove home, news of his situation spread among his Capitol Police colleagues. Croom was the first to e-mail him, writing just a single sentence — he would be going to Georgetown to be tested as a donor.

“Then I got another BlackBerry [message], and as word spread through my team, I got another BlackBerry and then another and another,” Gleason said.

“People saying ‘I’m right behind Shannon. I’m next in line.’”

Stepping Up

Croom vividly remembers the elation he felt at being able to tell Gleason’s family that he was an approved donor. It was, he said, “probably the best phone call I ever had to make.”

But Croom also remembers the days after the surgery, when his energy was sapped and tubes emerged from his body. At one point, he had an allergic reaction to medication; at another, he struggled to walk the length of the hallway.

After a week, both Croom and Gleason were released.

At first, Croom could only walk half a block; five weeks later, he was almost fully recovered and back at work.

“I think that if one of the main reasons that Noel and I met each other or that I was put here on this earth was for me to help save him, then that makes me happy,” Croom said. “I’m good with that.”

Colleagues aren’t surprised. They describe Croom as someone who is eager to help others — a person who volunteers for Habitat for Humanity on his time off.

“For him to step up, that’s just the type of person he is,” Special Agent Ed Wojciechowski said. “It’s in his nature to help out people.”

Croom and Gleason are part of a close-knit team that sometimes spends days traveling together, talking about anything and everything. As part of the job, everyone looks out for everyone else — a reflex that some said is reflected in their personal lives and interactions.

“I love the guy to death,” Special Agent Katey Pavone said of Gleason. “It was one of those things where you knew that people would be coming out of nowhere to help.”

Former Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) was one of those people — e-mailing Gleason from Mozambique with an offer to return to the United States for the surgery.

In a recent interview, Frist said he got to know Gleason and his family during the four years he was Senate Majority Leader.

Gleason headed up Frist’s security and accompanied him almost everywhere — football games, marathons and even the high school graduations of his three sons.

Gleason had talked to Frist about his condition in the past. Being a heart and lung transplant surgeon, Frist knew how rare it was to find a non-relative willing to give up half their liver.

“I was blown away by the fact that another Capitol Police officer, that another person had the appropriate match and, more importantly, stepped up to give that greatest gift,” he said. “It’s a wonderful story of the oneness of mankind. We’re all in this together.”

Back on the Job

For four months after the surgery, Gleason slowly recuperated at home. His daughter helped him walk to a stop sign 50 yards away. His wife cleaned everything a sick child touched, and, when she got bronchitis, made her husband sleep in a separate room.

Easily exhausted, Gleason was still stir-crazy. When he got tired of watching television, he blogged. When he was done blogging, he cleaned. Pavone remembers visiting Gleason after he had painted the house.

Now, he’s back to work on Pelosi’s detail, though he’s on light duty. While he once took 15 medications, he’s down to six. He’ll take immunosuppressants for the rest of his life, but he hopes to soon get back to his normal job.

His wife isn’t so sure.

“I prefer he do just a desk job,” she said. “Before I never worried about him. He just was gone a lot. Now it’s just different.”

Croom, on the other hand, says he looks forward to Gleason being back full time.

“Noel has to do anything I tell him to do. Clean my car, clean my house,” Croom joked. “When he’s cleared by the doctor to come back to work, I have a lot for him to do.”