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For Veronica : Touched by a Girl’s Tragedy, Deputy Police Chief Launches Healing Crusade

Times Staff Writer

When Mark Kroeker undertook a mission of mercy for an Argentine child who needed a new liver, the deputy chief in the Los Angeles Police Department could not have dreamed that his work would lead to a multinational crusade.

It began in January, 1987, when Kroeker and Larry Binkley, now Long Beach police chief, went to Argentina at the Argentine government’s invitation to explore an exchange program with the police in the province of Cordoba.

As they disembarked from their helicopter in the village of Carlos Paz, where they were to witness a rescue demonstration, they were welcomed by a sea of youngsters, singing songs and chanting pro-American slogans.

‘Moment I’ll Never Forget’

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“I was kissed by about 200 Argentine children,” Kroeker says. “Now in 23 years on the police department, I’ve been welcomed a lot of different ways to different situations, but never like that. It’s a moment I’ll never forget . . . a very special moment.”

Later, in Los Angeles, Kroeker was invited to a dinner honoring Cordoba’s visiting governor. There he met an Argentine physician who told him about an 11-year-old girl from a poor family in Berazategui, a Buenos Aires suburb, who was dying of liver failure.

“You could not get a liver transplant in Argentina,” Kroeker says, “and she was doomed.”

Kroeker could not get the child out of his mind: “I guess I was kind of responding to the love that was shown to me” by the children in Carlos Paz.

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The next day, he called the doctor and said, “I want to help that girl somehow.”

He met with the doctor, and that, says Kroeker, 44, was the beginning of “an incredible adventure that has been just a monumental part of my life”: his drive to improve Third World youngsters’ access to the trained surgeons, technology, facilities and support for state-of-the-art organ transplants.

In Argentina, a friend’s campaign had raised about $25,000 for Veronica Arguello, only a fraction of the sum needed to get the girl--whose father was an auto mechanic who struggled to support his family--a liver transplant in the United States.

Let’s bring her here, Kroeker decided, “and see what we can do.” The doctor agreed.

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‘I Knew the Money Existed’

“There were no options,” Kroeker says. “Once I knew of her, I couldn’t just let her die there. I knew the money existed in Los Angeles. I just figured this will get done . . . we’ll put something together.”

On Aug. 5, 1987, Veronica, with her mother, Racquel, and one of her two brothers, arrived at Los Angeles International Airport filled with hope.

“I did my best, through every conceivable way, to alert everyone I knew to her plight,” Kroeker says, “and some support came in. We opened a trust fund for her. We put out a notice here in the police department and formed a Veronica Arguello Support Committee.” A bond quickly developed between Kroeker and the child’s mother, who knew that her daughter, already jaundiced from idiopathic cirrhosis, would be dead in months without a new liver.

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“I’ll do anything,” she told him. “I’ll go anywhere. But my daughter has to live. She’s gone through so much. She must live.”

Soon, however, reality hit. A liver transplant could cost as much as $300,000--a sum out of reach for Third World children who lack insurance and state aid for organ transplants.

But not long after Veronica’s 12th birthday, which she celebrated at a party in Disneyland, Kroeker learned that Dallas Children’s Medical Center might perform the transplant for about $150,000. At that point, he says, “We had about $40,000.” Dallas seemed their best hope.

Kroeker flew with the Arguellos in mid-August to Dallas, where he had arranged for housing at Genesis House, a church program for the homeless operated by a pastor friend.

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With the Dallas Police Department providing the impetus, a Dallas support network was formed, Kroeker says: “There were endless barbecues and fiestas and car washes and piano concerts to raise money. Veronica became a household word there. . . . They started Veronica’s Liver Fund. They kept working and kept raising money and they ended up with $100,000.”

That was a lot of money but not enough.

Nevertheless, when that mark was reached, Veronica’s name went on the medical center’s list of patients ready for a transplant. “Every day and every night, I was living with this problem,” Kroeker says. “She became like a daughter to my wife and me, and I thought if this was my daughter--and I have a daughter--I’d sure want someone out there pounding the pavement to make something happen for her.”

Hope in Canada

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While they waited--it had now been four months since Veronica had been taken to Dallas--Kroeker had a phone call from Dick Hayward, a constable from the Ontario (Canada) Provincial Police. He wanted to know, had Kroeker ever heard of the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto? Sometimes, Hayward said, with government money for medical care, procedures could be arranged.

The next day Kroeker spoke with Dr. Rick Superina at the hospital in Toronto. He confirmed that “under very special circumstances,” arrangements could be made. The next day, Superina called back: For $80,000, he said, “we can do the whole thing.”

Kroeker quickly said yes, knowing the savings on the operation’s cost would leave Veronica $20,000 for the expensive anti-rejection medication she would need to take for the rest of her life. He broke the news to the Dallas group, which supported his plan.

In Toronto, Veronica’s name immediately went on the transplant waiting list. Her father, Pedro, joined the family in Toronto, where they moved into two rooms near the hospital. Veronica enrolled in school.

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“By now,” Kroeker says, “Veronica had hundreds of friends pulling for her, and waiting. Everyone was holding their breath. They were holding their breath in Argentina, Los Angeles, Dallas, Toronto.”

Then, one day in March, the pager Veronica wore at all times went off. There was a liver available; that same day she went into surgery. Kroeker recalls that the child was “what the doctors called spunky and ready and optimistic.”

But things did not go well. Veronica’s general condition was weak, and earlier surgeries had left a web of internal scar tissue. In 15 hours in the operating room, she bled profusely and doctors could not stop this.

In Los Angeles, Kroeker waited for news. When Superina, who was the lead surgeon, called, he remembers, “I could hear the despondency and the fatigue in his voice. He told me that things did not look good for Veronica and all we could do was hope and wait and pray.”

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Two More Attempts

Her body apparently was rejecting the donated liver. Another organ became available and doctors decided to try a second transplant, a second 15-hour procedure. “This time,” Kroeker says, the calls from Toronto were “a little bit more hopeful . . . then her kidneys began to fail, and there was a whole string of other complications. So they decided to do it a third time.”

During the third surgery, a clot formed in her portal vein, an important vein into the liver, and it collapsed. “When that happens,” Kroeker says, “that’s the end.”

Four days after she had entered the hospital full of hope, Veronica was dead. Her family, Kroeker says, was “just destroyed and yet grateful that she had had her one chance to live and that all these people had tried to help her have that chance.”

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An airline returned the body, and Veronica’s family, to Argentina as its anonymous contribution. En route, the plane made a scheduled stop in Dallas, where there was a small memorial service.

‘Language of Love’

Racquel Arguello called Kroeker from Dallas--she always addressed him as commandante-- and, through an interpreter, thanked him for all his help. She said he had become like a second father to Veronica.

“The principal language in all of this was the language of love,” says Kroeker, who spoke no Spanish. “There was not much else needed between us.”

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Veronica’s mother asked one more favor of him. Would he continue on, do this for other children? And could something be named for Veronica, so she would be remembered?

Kroeker promised--yes, and yes.

But what? Aware that he had virtually no knowledge of medicine, Kroeker started asking for advice from, among others, Dr. Robert Gale of UCLA, the bone marrow transplant expert who had treated victims of the Chernobyl disaster.

Gradually, Kroeker put together a geographically diverse board of seven medical advisers that includes: Gale; Superina; Dr. Tom Starzl of the University of Pittsburgh, an expert in pediatric liver transplantation; and Dr. Leonard Makowka, soon to become head of surgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

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Kroeker told the doctors the story of Veronica and each offered the same advice: “Don’t ever do that again.” They explained that, by taking on an individual case, Kroeker would burn himself out, run out of money, and, ultimately, have the heartbreak of having to say no to a truly deserving family.

Provide Medical Centers

Instead, what is needed, the doctors said, is to give children’s medical centers in the Third World the capability to perform organ transplants, to ensure they have the technology and the trained surgeons--and to create public awareness in the countries of the need for donor organs and make people “more comfortable with the whole idea of organ transplantation.”

Last September, the World Children’s Transplant Fund was incorporated in California. Its goal, Kroeker says, is “to provide life-saving organ transplants to children of our planet without regard to anything except that they’re kids. . . . When a kid dies in Mexico City, it matters to me.”

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The foundation will have its first board meeting in February. “I guess I’m the chairman, founder, president,” Kroeker says. “I’m pushing this thing with whatever spare time I can find.”

The initial plan is to look at major population centers in Latin America, sites such as Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Brazil and Buenos Aires where, he says, there are “a whole lot of little Veronicas” and where existing medical facilities can be converted into first-rate organ transplant centers.

In 30 days, he expects to have physician liaisons in Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, where the medical communities are, he says, “very receptive, very willing, very open to help.” Indeed, Kroeker has been invited to be the keynoter at the first Pan American Conference in Emergency Medicine in May in Buenos Aires.

Even as transplant technology and capability are exploding in the United States, Kroeger observes, the debt burdens of Latin American countries are resulting in dwindling public subsidies “and the quality of life and medical care for the child is going downhill. In Latin America, there is some transplantation going on, there are some really fine surgeons, but they have scattered pieces of equipment and outdated equipment and inadequate training. There is none that you could call a first-rate transplant center.”

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He is a policeman, he emphasizes, not a fund-raiser, but he is an officer with dreams who knows “you can’t do all these dreams without money.” Already, he has enlisted as national chairmen for his group Michael and Barbara King (he is chief executive officer of King World, packager and owner of TV’s “Wheel of Fortune,” “Jeopardy!” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”) The fund-raising campaign will officially begin March 6, the anniversary of Veronica’s death.

Volunteers, Donated Offices

Initially, the foundation--whose address is 5809 E. Telegraph Road, City of Commerce 90040--will run mostly with volunteers in donated space at Western Office Interiors.

Kroeker is adamant: “We’re not going to be a rich foundation with a bunch of offices while kids are dying.”

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His personal goal is to have the first fully staffed, fully operational children’s transplant center in a Latin American hub city by March 6, 1990. That, he estimates, will mean raising a minimum of $350,000, but the cost could go as high as $1 million.

“The bill is paid at Toronto,” he says, “and we have around $30,000 left over. We’re using that as seed money.”

Perhaps that first center will be named for Veronica, whose picture will appear on the foundation’s stationery.

‘Invested Our Hearts’

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Kroeker remembers a “bright, playful, courageous” child named Veronica Arguello.

“We invested our hearts,” he says simply. Perhaps, he suggests, his upbringing as the child of missionaries who lived and worked in the Third World directed him toward his own mission.

Reflecting on the odyssey that began with Veronica’s arrival in Los Angeles, Kroeker says: “I learned, ‘Don’t get involved unless you are willing to let your heart drag you all over the place. But once you do, then stand by because you’re going to have some immense joy.’

“I can honestly say there’s not one thing I could have done for that little girl that I didn’t do. We don’t get these chances very often in life.”

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