When he got the call on a frozen November morning last year, Hal Smith was catching his breath in the privacy of his office at Malone College in Canton, Ohio. Since 1989, when he received a diagnosis of primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), a rare, incurable disease in which scarring and inflammation of the bile ducts send bile coursing back from the liver into the bloodstream, every day had been a sick day for Smith. Though doctors deemed his situation dire enough to add him to the national liver transplant waiting list in 1997, the then 55-year-old had kept both his jobs—athletic director and basketball coach—at Malone. He did so despite jaundice, unbearably itchy skin and fatigue that forced him to curl up on his office floor for 30-minute rests in the middle of a workday.
Smith answered the phone that November morning and heard the voice of his wife, Barbara, trembling on the line. "Hal, I know this sounds crazy," she said, "but Sharon Looney wants to donate part of her liver."
Smith had heard about living-donor transplants, which at that time had been performed in the U.S. for only two years: A healthy person donates a section of his or her liver, which can regenerate itself to full size in about a month. Smith had even screened some of his relatives, whose liver sizes or blood types turned out to be unsuitable matches. However, the gesture by Looney, a Malone assistant softball coach—an acquaintance with whom Smith was barely comfortable sharing small talk, let alone vital organs—seemed unbelievable. Smith hung up the phone and hurried down the hallway to the softball office, where he found the 44-year-old Looney. Smith asked, "Are you sure you want to do this?"
Two years later, with 60% of her liver in full bloom inside her boss, the soft-spoken Looney smiles at the memory. "I was as sure as I had been about anything in my entire life," she says. After watching Smith's health deteriorate over several months, Looney, a former paramedic, had done some research and found that while most living donors and recipients are relatives, her A-positive blood matched Smith's. "I thought that if there was any reason I shouldn't do this, it would come out during the screening process," says Looney.
After a series of physicals the Cleveland Clinic administered a battery of psychological interviews to determine whether Looney was in the right frame of mind to be a donor. Given the risk of operative complications, she needed to fill out a living will, which a lawyer hand-delivered to her in the middle of a softball game in November 1999. "She was nervous, but she felt this was her calling," says Angela Byder, a senior third baseman who gathered teammates and opposing players on the diamond to say a prayer for Looney after that game. "She was so humble through the whole thing."
The transplant, which took a nine-person surgical team 16 hours to perform, went off without a hitch on April 4. Today, what remains of Smith and Looney's ordeal together is a new friendship and matching "Mercedes" scars, shaped like the car maker's logo, on their bellies. Looney jokingly laments the toll taken on her abdominal muscles but has otherwise fully recovered. "I've learned never to take anything for granted," she says. This spring will be her first full season as head softball coach.
Smith still can't talk about his coworker's sacrifice without choking up. Without a living-donor transplant he might have contracted cancer of the bile duct—as Walter Payton did and 10% of PSC sufferers do—before a liver from a deceased donor became available. Less than one third of the 14,709 people on the U.S. liver transplant list at the start of 2000 received cadaveric organs by the end of the year.
Although Smith must take medication for the rest of his life to make sure his body doesn't reject Looney's liver, he feels as good as new. "Sharon gave me a gift I will never be able to repay," he says. "My color is good, my energy is back, and for the first time in years, food tastes good."
Even Malone's NAIA Division II basketball team—which had 16 straight winning seasons under Smith before finishing 8-25 amid last year's difficult circumstances—experienced a turnaround this season, with a 16-15 record. "It was hard to see him suffering every day," says junior forward Wes Dudgeon. "His spirit is back, and we're definitely playing better for it."
While excited to see his team enjoying more success, Smith says he has never been all that concerned with winning percentages. "At our level, sports are just a lab for life," he says. "I hope these kids walk away from this school having learned a lesson or two about how to play the game and how to live their lives."