Leon Tranchemontagne was dying.
While serving in the military, he had developed chronic osteomyetitis, a serious bone infection that required dozens of blood transfusions throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. Through one or more of those transfusions, he contracted hepatitis C. By 2002, his liver was destroyed. Without a new organ, Leon would not survive.
Leon with his wife, Cheryl, and daughter, Lea.
So his name was added to a transplant list with thousands of others. He and his wife temporarily relocated from Maine to Pittsburgh to be near the Veteran Affairs (VA) hospital there—one of two VA hospitals that did liver transplants at the time.
And so began the waiting game. A month went by. Two more months. When doctors discovered Leon also had several cancerous tumors in his liver, his name was bumped up the list.
There were several false alarms. A match was found and Leon was summoned to the hospital to get ready for surgery. But at the last minute, doctors discovered a problem with the donor organ. Finally, after six months on the transplant list, he got the green light. A liver was available from a boy who had died in Washington State. “The doctor has the liver in his hands and he’s not letting it go until he puts it in your body,” a nurse told Leon.
Recovery from a liver transplant is typically one to two weeks in the hospital. But Leon stayed for three months. Because he was so ill, he suffered many complications with the surgery—scar tissue from an old injury, a collapsed lung and an allergic reaction to a transfusion. Doctors said he would have lasted only three more months without the surgery. Despite the successful liver transplant, Leon fell into a coma.
Four days later, Leon opened his eyes. And when he did, he saw love all around him. During his recovery, family and friends visited from across the country. Letters from his granddaughter’s elementary school class flooded his hospital room. A phone call came from a close friend in Paris. After Leon hung up, a nurse began to wonder who this popular bilingual man was. “Excuse me, sir, can I ask you a personal question? Are you somebody really important?” she asked.
“To my family and friends I must be.”
From his hospital bed, Leon promised another close friend he’d visit him in Belgium.
“Why would you want to go to Belgium?” a nurse asked.
“Because I can,” Leon smiled. Because after coming back from the edge of death, after defying the odds, Leon was alive and wanted to make this chance count.
Eventually he regained his strength. Despite developing diabetes, high blood pressure and a dramatically diminished immune system from the transplant, he was thrilled. Leon not only survived, he lived.
A year after the transplant Leon was on a plane to Belgium. Five years later, he and his wife visited their daughter, Lea, when she studied abroad in London. Eleven years later, he told the story of how he gained a second life.
Lea and Leon at the Notre Dame in Paris.
Today, 73-year-old Leon speaks publicly on the importance of organ donation as a volunteer of the New England Organ Bank. “I was so happy to be alive. I knew I had to do something,” Leon said. He believes education is the key to getting more people to donate. “I knew there was a critical need for organs. I knew what I went through waiting for my organ. If I ever know that one person became an organ donor because of me, I will have reached my goal.” Leon set an objective for talking to 5,000 people.
A member of a Rotary Club, Leon has spoken to 37 club chapters. He easily exceeded his target when one of his talks was broadcast by public access TV to 19,000 homes across southern Maine. Leon made copies of the tape and mailed them out to other public access TV stations throughout New England, eventually reaching 300,000 homes.
The transplant not only changed Leon’s life, but also his family’s perspective.
“I think [the transplant] has affected every single aspect of my life,” said Lea, 26. “I can’t really imagine what my life would have been if my dad wasn’t here. The families that donate are so selfless, they should really be applauded and be acknowledged for what they’re doing for people.”
To learn more about organ donation and how to become a donor, visit organdonor.gov.