New liver, lots of heart

Wasilla's Kroon rebounding well from transplant operation earlier this year

Posted: Wednesday, December 04, 2002

The pager, her electronic lifeline, was tucked safely inside her gym bag inside the locker room at Anchorage's Sullivan Arena. As she waited for the telephone call that could save her life, Brittney Kroon was playing the most important basketball game of her life.

The pager was supposed to be with her at all times, but what was she supposed to do? Clip it to her basketball shorts? Kroon had a championship game to play, and surely for those two hours the call wouldn't come. A liver wouldn't suddenly become available. What were the odds?

So Kroon played for her Wasilla High School team in the Alaska Class 4A state basketball championship. She scored 24 points and had double-figure rebounds, but her team lost by three to East Anchorage High School. And while she was playing, believe it or not, her pager beeped. A donor liver had been found. Inside her gym bag a call that could have saved her life went unanswered.

"It was in my bag and I was probably supposed to look at it," Kroon said. "But the game was so big, and I didn't even think about looking at it after the game."

At Thanksgiving two years ago, Kroon was told she was suffering from an autoimmune disease that affected her liver. The doctors at the University of Washington Medical Center were compassionate, but direct. They told her the illness was life-threatening. She needed a new liver. Her name was placed on the national transplant list and the waiting began.

"Hearing that news was one of those shocks that you can't comprehend for a while," Kroon said. "You don't know what to think."

Then, when her pager beeped and she didn't hear it, she wondered if she had lost her last best chance at a new liver - and her chance at a college basketball career.

In two weeks, Kroon was going to lose her status as a pediatric patient. She would be listed among adults, and her chances of getting a new liver would diminish greatly.

"We did not expect to go into this fall with the transplant behind us," said her father, Larry.

But several weeks after that first beep, Brittney was in Oregon and her pager sounded again. She was told to get up to Seattle immediately. A teenage skateboarder from Alaska had been hit by a car and killed. Kroon's year of waiting was over. His liver would become her liver. His death would give her life.

"The other day I was thinking of all the things I'm thankful for," said Larry Kroon. "One of them is the family who in a critical moment of grief thought to give someone else life. They are the real heroes. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a child, but in the midst of that, they thought enough to pass life on.

"It was like a big cloud had been removed from us. We didn't have to worry about when Brittney would get her new liver, or how bad she would get before she finally had the opportunity."

Three months after her surgery, Brittney was cleared to start exercising again. On the same day, a packet from Seattle Pacific Coach Gordy Presnell arrived, with instructions for her preseason workout program.

"I took that coincidence as a sign from God that everything was going to be all right," she said.

Now, remarkably, nine months after receiving her new liver, Kroon is playing basketball again. She is a freshman center for SPU and believed to be only the second athlete to return to a college or professional sport after a liver transplant.

Presnell considered redshirting her but decided it was important to Kroon, for her peace of mind, to get back to the game that is so important to her.

Kroon takes a battery of anti-rejection medications three times a day that compromise her immune system and leave her susceptible to infections, so Presnell is cautious about her playing time and practice schedule.

"This is a big deal. It's bigger than the 'Rocky' comeback," he said. "This is a pretty amazing story, and I wanted her to experience that. Right now, she's our fifth post and we're pointing for her to be in the nucleus of our rotation in February. We're taking it as slow as it takes, whatever it takes."

The liver is the largest organ in the body, and the scar from her surgery is huge. It runs from one hip to the other and up her chest, forming an inverted "V." The scar still gives her some discomfort and Kroon bruises easily. Large, dark, angry-looking bruises.

But she is playing ball again and, except for some fatigue, she says she is feeling good. She scored eight points in a recent victory over Colorado Christian.

"In my head there never was a doubt that I would keep playing," she said.

Her father apologized as he spoke about her. His voice occasionally cracked. This has been a terribly difficult, but richly rewarding, experience for the family.

"I'd go through anything with that girl," he said. "She's always been so confident. Always thinking, let's get on with the next step. All the way through this thing nothing has seemed to faze her. It's been a special thing to watch. It's cool. It really is."

This weekend her parents, both graduates of SPU, watched her play a game for the first time since her surgery. They watched the miracle of a life saved. They saw the courage of their daughter manifested.

Brittney Kroon was playing basketball again and not worrying about her liver or her pager or her future.



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