Leon Sanchez will never forget the day 12 years ago when his son Henry made a goal in his soccer tournament and won the final game. On the sidelines, Leon was on his knees.
“He was the hero. I was so proud of him,” Leon recalls, while the two sit in the living room of their west Lodi home.
Since then, father and son have been inseparable. A former soccer player himself, Leon Sanchez used to coach his son. The two watched a few live soccer games together. Sometimes they sit and watch them on TV. Even if Henry is doing something else, Leon calls him at random times to come see parts of the game.
“He’ll say, ‘You have to come see this,’” Henry said.
The two say they are best friends, because they communicate well and do everything together that friends do, Henry said.
“I just don’t go to the clubs where he goes. It’s too young for me,” Leon said with a chuckle.
Three years ago, everything changed. Leon Sanchez was diagnosed with hepatitis C. The virus often infects the liver, according to Dr. John Roberts, professor of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco.
Leon Sanchez hoped the treatment the doctors were giving him would cure the disease, but after several rounds of sickness and numerous hospitalizations, the outlook was bleak.
Henry was afraid of losing his best friend, so he offered to be his father’s liver donor. After two years of prodding his father, Leon took him up on it.
It was a moment that would not be forgotten.
The unbreakable bond between father and son
Leon Sanchez is a 1983 graduate of Van Nuys High School in Southern California. He married his wife, Emma, 27 years ago, and the couple have three children.
Before moving to Lodi eight years ago, the family lived in the San Fernando Valley and then Northridge. Since the 49-year-old played soccer all four years of high school, through college and also on a semi-pro team, he began to coach Henry when he took up the sport at age 6.
Henry, now 21, says he often goes to his father for advice because he always knows what to say. When he goes to parties, he tells his father about them. He also tells him about problems he may be having with girls.
“We talk a lot; sometimes too much,” Henry said, laughing. “I tell him things that people normally don’t tell their parents.”
An incurable disease
When Leon Sanchez was diagnosed with hepatitis C, doctors began treating him with shots that he received in the stomach three times a week.
He began taking Incivek, a medication that was supposed to help fight against the virus. The medication was so strong that he lost his appetite and was frequently sick to his stomach.
Leon Sanchez isn’t sure how he became infected with the disease. He has never used drugs and is a minimal drinker, he said. He has also never had a blood transfusion. Since he grew up in Mexico, he thinks he may have been exposed to improperly sanitized needles at doctor’s offices.
Hepatitis C is most often transmitted through drug use or blood transfusions, Roberts said. Prior to 1990, blood wasn’t screened as thoroughly as it is today.
“It takes about 20 years from infection until people get cirrhosis. Now they are just starting to show up,” he said.
Leon Sanchez was in Mexico the first time he got sick. After spending two days in a coma, he went home only to find himself sick again a couple of months later. This landed him in Lodi Memorial Hospital for three days.
Confusion set in the next time he got sick. His daughter told him he went to put juice in his cup but he didn’t have a cup in his hand.
“I just dropped the juice on the floor,” he said. “They said I was awake but I didn’t know what I was doing.”
When he was taken to the hospital that time, he was told his ammonia levels were too high. Since his liver wasn’t working properly, it was unable to do its job of keeping his levels in check. He was given medication to keep his ammonia levels down.
Sometimes he forgot to take the medication. This caused his ammonia levels to go back up, and confusion would set in again.
A year into treatment, the infection had gotten so bad, he was told he had cirrhosis of the liver. His doctor told him a liver transplant was inevitable.
The deciding factor for liver transplants are based on the patient’s Model of End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) score, Roberts said. The score is calculated using the results of three blood tests given to the patient.
“It has the ability to predict their chance of being alive in three months,” he said.
Because Leon’s liver was cirrhotic, scarring was causing complications and it wasn’t functioning properly. In cases like this, the only options are a transplant or keeping the patient stable.
“There is usually nothing we can do to reverse the scarring of the liver. We can only manage the complications and prevent it from going further,” Roberts said.
The tipping point
Leon has been a truck driver for WinCo Foods for nine years. He drives in the Sacramento area as well as Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It was when he was driving back from Las Vegas that he realized how serious his illness was. While on the interstate, he blacked out. When he woke up, he had passed his exit.
“I don’t know how I did it and how I got that far,” he said.
After arriving at the warehouse, his co-workers noticed a look of fatigue on his face. They also noticed he hadn’t logged his breaks or lunch hour. His co-workers said he looked tired, and Leon told them he was on medication. He was ordered to take a drug test and was told he couldn’t come back until the results came in.
For two years, Henry tried to convince Leon to let him be his liver donor. Leon kept refusing. He didn’t want to impose on his son.
But after the numerous hospital visits and bouts of confusion, depression started to set in. He realized he had to do something.
That’s when he asked if his son was still willing.
There was no question in Henry Sanchez’s mind that he would do it. He couldn’t imagine life without his father around. It weighed on him that his father might never see his children again or live to meet his grandchildren.
Henry knew if his father died, he would regret not doing something. And after watching his dad go through so much pain, he grew tired of watching him suffer. His father had given him life and he wanted to give it back, Henry said.
“I knew he would do it for me if it was the other way around,” he said. “For him to ask me was like getting my high school diploma. It was exciting.”
A possible donor
The first thing Henry did was have his blood type tested. When he came home one day late in the summer and told his father they were both A-positive, Leon was happy. He had no doubts that they would match.
“He looks like me. He’s like me 100 percent. I thought if I really needed a liver it would be him instead of my daughter or older son,” he said.
If they hadn’t been the same blood type, Henry isn’t sure the transplant would have happened. His father’s only other option would have been to wait for a possible donor.
“I don’t think he would have made it to see 2014,” Henry said.
Patients needing a liver transplant are prioritized according to their MELD score, Roberts said. Those with a higher MELD score are placed at the top of the list for a transplant from a deceased donor. That’s where a living donor is beneficial.
But sometimes, after being tested, living donors are found to be the wrong match, either due to the wrong blood type or from something wrong in their anatomy.
“In that situation, maybe there’s someone else who can donate; another son, brother or friend. If they don’t have another, they are just waiting to get sick enough,” Roberts said.
The blood test was only the first step for Henry. He then had to go through another series of tests. A CAT scan made sure his liver was big enough to donate. He then had to have an MRI, a heart sonogram, do a treadmill test, provide stool and urine samples and take medications to help prepare him for the transplant. He also had to be interviewed by doctors and psychologists to make sure he was mentally prepared.
He was warned of the risks, including the possibility of not waking up from the anesthesia. But his only concern was his father’s life. And when writing up his will, he stated if something happened, Henry wanted the doctors to save his father instead of him.
“My issue was not letting my best friend die. I was more scared of him dying than me,” he said.
But it was the other way around for Leon. He didn’t like putting his son at risk.
“I told my wife, if you have to choose between Henry and me, I want you to let me go,” Leon said.
A life saved
On Nov. 22, 2013, father and son went to UCSF for the surgery. While the family sat in the waiting room, they met another family whose father was there for a kidney and heart transplant. The two families exchanged stories.
Henry said he was inspired by the other family’s story, and that man was inspired by theirs. He told them he didn’t think many children would donate an organ for their parents.
“We told him I was the living donor, his reaction was priceless. He said I’m one of a kind,” Henry said.
Forty-five percent of the left side of Henry’s liver was taken and transplanted into his father.
With Henry translating, Emma Sanchez said that through the entire ordeal, she was positive that both her husband and son would live. But the time the two spent in surgery seemed to go on forever.
She leaned on her sister for support. She also said a lot of prayers.
Some time after the two went in for surgery, she saw the doctor come out to get a soda. She went up and asked how they were doing. She was surprised when the doctor said he was going to go back and put the liver in.
As the clocked ticked on, worry and frustration began to set in, followed by relief when the doctor finally came out.
A tear slid down her check as Emma recalled the events of that day. She remembers telling Leon after it was over she wished it was a dream and she wouldn’t be able to remember it.
“I used to dream I was in the hospital hallway just walking through doors. It was a nightmare,” she said as she wiped away her tears.
When Henry woke up from surgery 6 1/2 hours later, the first thing he did was ask about his father. He was still in surgery, so the nurse didn’t know anything about his condition. The only thing Henry could think about was whether or not Leon had made it.
“I was still thinking, ‘If he dies, how am I going to live without my dad?’” he said.
It was another five hours before he finally found out the surgery was over — and his father was responding well to the new organ.
A life renewed
Since the surgery, both have been limited in what they can do. Because the sun’s radiation can hinder the healing process and damage their scars, they have to stay indoors. Even while wearing clothing, the sun’s rays could still affect the incisions. Eating pork is out, too, because if it isn’t cooked correctly, it can cause liver damage.
“I need to say away from the taco trucks,” Henry said, laughing.
Within three to four months, both father and son’s livers will grow to full capacity. A donor’s liver will not grow back its other side, but the remaining portion will get bigger, Roberts explained. The recipient’s liver will also grow.
“The body controls the size you need,” he said.
The first year after receiving a liver transplant is the most critical, Roberts said. Ninety percent of patients survive that crucial year; after that, the risk of death falls and is once again based on the patient’s overall health.
“In the long run that’s the message we give to everyone. They really need to take care of themselves,” he said.
People are expected to get back into the world and lead normal lives following surgery, he said. After the first year, people begin to return to a normal routine, because they have fewer worries.
Henry is anxious to do just that. Not being able to work or play sports has been hard on him. Sometimes, he sits at the park and watches people run. It inspires him to want to get out and be active, but doing too much too soon tires him.
He recently returned to his job at Accent Care, where he is a caregiver. The 2010 graduate of Liberty High School finds the health care industry intriguing and hopes to someday be a paramedic. His ultimate goal, though, would be to be professional soccer player.
Henry says Lodi has a lot to offer and wants to put it on the map.
“I feel like I want to give back something to Lodi,” he said. “If I can have half of my organ taken out, I can to anything.”
Both father and son are looking forward to being able to take their 23-foot boat out again. Before Leon’s illness, the family headed out to the Delta or Lake Camanche twice a month and piled into the boat with a picnic lunch.
Leon is also looking forward to getting back to work. He misses driving.
“That’s what I love,” he said.
Although Leon hasn’t played soccer in a long time, he now often feels like going out to the park to kick the ball around. He also decided to completely give up alcohol.
“My liver is not mine anymore. It’s my son’s liver. I have to take care of it,” he said.
He hopes to keep in touch with the hospital to donate blood and help someone who might be in need. Both Leon and Henry want the chance to convince others to donate blood.
Going through surgery was the worst pain Henry has ever felt, but he says it was all worth it.
“There’s a lot to be thankful for. There’s a lot we take for granted, like blood,” he said. “When you are in the hospital, you see it all. It takes like 15 minutes and you are saving someone’s life.”
Contact reporter Pam Bauserman at email@example.com.