By Chris Jones
Long-term resident and retired Falls Church City planner Loren Bruce underwent a liver transplant operation in July that saved the 66-year old’s life. That’s great news enough, but behind this happy ending story, and the story of Bruce’s years-plus quiet struggle and search for a donor, was the heroism it spawned in a fellow member of the City, a member of Falls Church’s finest, no less.
Without Bruce’s knowledge, because as a matter of policy prospective recipients are not allowed to know the identity of prospective donors, unless family members, ahead of transplant surgery, Falls Church Police Sergeant James Brooks of the F.C. department had volunteered himself to donate a liver for a transplant and was pushing ahead for the surgery last summer when suddenly his gift was not needed.
“Heads up,” her Facebook post began ominously, “I have been off social media for some time now. Later today, I’m going to post something very serious. Please watch for it.” So began, on Aug. 29, 2018, Gail Bruce Hyatt’s social media journey to help find a living liver donor to help save her brother’s life.
Hyatt would go on to detail Bruce’s declining condition in a later post — his legs stopped working and his muscles were gradually weakening. A medication Bruce took years earlier to combat Crohn’s disease, Hyatt would write, was now the cause of his failing liver. With his liver no longer filtering toxins from his blood stream, the uncleansed blood made its way to his brain and gradually stunted Bruce’s ability to complete basic tasks such as working, walking, speaking, writing and even thinking.
This news was accompanied by a link to LiveforLoren.com, a website detailing Bruce’s struggles and broadcasting calls for a living liver donor transplant (the liver being the one organ in the body that can actually grow back in a prospective donor). Heart warming earlier pictures of a healthy Bruce are juxtaposed with heart wrenching video clips of his struggle to cope with a weakening liver.
“Some of you may already know me. Maybe you’re one of my family members, maybe you’re a dear friend of mine, maybe we went to school together…[and] some of you may not know me at all,” Bruce said in an introductory video clip. “However you got here, I want to sincerely thank you for taking the time to read my story. The bottom line is that I’m in need of a liver transplant. . . . Without a transplant, the prognosis is dire. Eventually, it will mean a premature death.”
Though Loren was eligible for a place on the national liver donor transplant registry (where transplantable livers could be harvested from deceased patients), there were over 100,000 other desperately sick patients waiting on the list as well, thousands of whom were ahead of him with seemingly more dire forms of cirrhosis.
Some hopeful signs came in September. An outpouring of support over social media while several living liver donor volunteers began to make inquiries to see if they were a match. By late winter, however, it looked like a volunteer was about to be confirmed, when bad news struck: a biopsy on the potential donor (a female) raised concerns and she was struck from consideration.
As spring turned to this summer, Hyatt began to post desperate pleas for a donor. She and Bruce kept their faith in the Penn Medicine team in Philadelphia who oversaw his treatment, but also understood they were low on time. In July a less-than-ideal donor match came through for Bruce — a deceased 70-year-old patient who had just died of a heart attack — but the ailing Falls Church resident was optimistic.
“This is a no-brainer, guys,” Bruce recounted, “I’m getting sicker by the day! I don’t know if I can last until September and what if the potential donor falls through?… I can’t believe it’s happening! I’m ready.”
Then, another wild turn. After being prepped for surgery and long day of waiting, Bruce’s procedure was postponed repeatedly. The family grew more and more anxious until Hyatt received a blissful text in the middle of the night — a 30-year-old had died of what was believed to be an opioid overdose, and a liver was inbound for Bruce’s abdomen.
While this liver donation was supposed to go to another patient higher on the donation registry, it turned out, at the last minute, not to be a good match for the intended recipient in its size and shape. Amazingly, Bruce was allowed to receive the donation ahead of all the others because he was in the hospital in nearby Philadelphia, prepped for surgery, the blood types matched, the liver was the right size, and, at this point, time was of the essence. Bruce’s doctors responded with humor to the turn of events, saying “So, it’s like you got upgraded from a jalopy to a Ferrari.”
Thirty hours later in the intensive care unit, nurses reported they were highly encouraged by Bruce’s progress coming out of the surgery. He was already sitting/reclining in a chair. The family’s prayers had been answered.
In early August, two weeks into his recovery, Bruce received one of the most meaningful surprises of his life. Hyatt had arranged for Bruce to meet the man who had volunteered to be a live donor right before Loren ended up receiving his new liver from the deceased 30-year-old. He turned out to be Sergeant James Brooks of the City of Falls Church police department.
Brooks and Bruce had a relationship when the latter was the City Planner and needed input from various City departments for upcoming projects. The attentiveness Bruce had paid Brooks’ suggestions on issues of traffic flow, school zoning and bike safety, to name a few, engendered some goodwill from the then-Community Services Officer.
Brooks had not seen Bruce since his retirement from the planning office. However, when he saw the News-Press article in April announcing that Bruce was still on the hunt for a donor, according to his account, he went to LiveForLoren.com, saw Bruce’s deteriorating condition and filled out the application.
“I don’t want to bring your hopes up too high but I have signed up for the living donor seminar on May 24 to see if I am eligible for Loren,” Brooks wrote Hyatt in an introductory email. “He was always kind to me and gave me great respect for my opinions in regards to city planning. If I can successfully donate to him, and he can recover, I ask that we can go on a good hike together.” But Loren was not allowed to know of this at the time.
After months of visiting Philadelphia for medical exams, clearing hurdles and with the full support of the police department and his wife, Brooks was expecting to have the transplantation surgery in the first week of September. Then, on July 15, with the above-mentioned turn in the road. Hyatt called Brooks to let him know that Bruce had received a new liver.
Emotion was overflowing at the surprise reunion between Bruce and Brooks. “Of all the people… I never would have imagined it,” Bruce said at the time, continuing on by saying Brooks is a “first-class, real deal, intelligent, humble, and all around great guy. Falls Church has a real hero.”
Officer Brooks, however, humbly rejected the characterization of himself as a hero. “[Bruce] is the one who was a hero. For him to persevere through all of this, that says a lot about him as a person… the real story is about Loren.”