With just days to live, a Marine who survived a treacherous tour of duty in Iraq only to be struck down with liver failure received a liver transplant Sunday at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
Friends and family of Lance Cpl. Christopher R. LeBleu, 22, broke into a standing ovation when a team of doctors completed the 10-hour operation Sunday afternoon.
LeBleu had fallen critically ill in December -- three months after returning from Iraq.
Eric Lamendola, LeBleu’s stepfather, said the Marine’s family was joyful about the liver donation but sad that someone had to die for the transplant to take place.
“It’s tragic that someone has to lose for someone else to gain,” he said.
LeBleu, a native of Lake Charles, La., remains in critical condition. Doctors say it will be several days before they know if the transplant was a success.
“The next 48 hours are going to be really, really important,” said Sgt. Jennie Haskamp, a spokeswoman for the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, on Sunday. LeBleu was stationed there before he was deployed nearly a year ago.
Hospital officials declined to identify the liver donor or discuss the conditions of the donation. But they said LeBleu’s critical condition before the transplant qualified him for the top of the national transplant list.
“We were ecstatic,” Lamendola said. “Our son has a second chance.”
On Friday, doctors at Loma Linda hooked LeBleu to a ventilator to keep him alive, but they worried that he would not live through the weekend without a transplant.
He returned Sept. 9 from a seven-month tour of duty, where he was a rifleman with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, conducting operations in Fallouja and provinces near the Syrian border. Twenty of LeBleu’s comrades were killed and dozens injured.
Once he returned to California, LeBleu got on with life. He applied to sniper school, planning on a military career. He married his hometown sweetheart, Melany, in October.
But in December, LeBleu visited his doctor, complaining of fatigue. Dr. Donald J. Hillebrand, director of liver transplants at Loma Linda, said he suspected LeBleu was the victim of a form of hepatitis but couldn’t say how he might have contracted the disease. Family members said doctors were told that no others from LeBleu’s battalion had suffered similar problems.
Once word arrived Saturday night that a donor had been found with LeBleu’s blood type -- O positive -- his family and friends rejoiced. Word spread quickly to LeBleu’s hometown, where neighbors and family were praying for LeBleu and his wife.
“They’re so much in love,” said Julie Parham, who is related to LeBleu through marriage. “It would be terrible to have had just a few months of married life.”
Nearly 4,000 people in California are waiting for a liver transplant, according to the United Network of Organ Sharing, a nonprofit group dedicated to matching donors with patients. An average of five people awaiting liver transplants die each day nationwide, Hillebrand said.
The donated liver arrived at the hospital Saturday night from New Mexico. Surgery began at 6 a.m. Sunday and lasted nearly 10 hours.
Haskamp, the Marine spokeswoman, said the waiting room at the hospital Sunday was packed with family members, worried Marines and other supporters who learned about LeBleu’s condition from media reports.
In Louisiana, family members kept track by telephone, fielding calls for information as well as offers of assistance.
“People were calling all the time asking how they could help,” said Anne Marie Parham, Julie Parham’s daughter. “One older man ... said he would give him his liver, that he had lived his life. These are complete strangers. They had seen the local news articles and wanted to do something.”