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
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
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."
Teamwork never had better teachers.
COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON
"I was as sure as I had been about anything," says donor Looney