LOMA LINDA, Calif. — With little time left before his organs would likely fail, a U.S. Marine received a new liver Sunday for a mysterious ailment doctors said would kill him if he didn't get a transplant.
Doctors operated on Lance Cpl. Chris LeBleu, who had been in a coma and on life support, for nearly 12 hours Sunday after an unidentified donor from New Mexico was found late Saturday night.
Doctors said the procedure went well, said Sgt. Jennie Haskamp, spokeswoman at Twentynine Palms, where LeBleu was stationed. He was in critical condition late Sunday.
In the hospital lobby, his 21-year-old wife, Melany, found comfort in photos of her wedding last fall, shortly after LeBleu returned from Iraq. Despite her fears, she has remained optimistic since her husband's illness was discovered earlier this month.
Several of LeBleu's commanding officers, fellow Marines and other family members huddled with his wife Sunday as they awaited the outcome of the operation.
Burt Parham, who is related to LeBleu by marriage, said he expected bad news when he got the call that a liver had been found.
"It was kind of a worried ring, but we were glad of the news," said Parham, who lives in the family's hometown of Lake Charles, La. "It's a shame somebody has to die. But I mean, it's God's will, I guess. We sure have been praying for Chris."
The cause of the infection is unknown. Dr. Donald Hillebrand, a liver specialist, said LeBleu most likely caught a virus or was exposed to a toxin or chemical in Iraq or after his return.
LeBleu, 22, was a rifleman in Iraq for seven months as part of a 2,200-man task force that lost 21 people and had nearly 200 wounded in action. His battalion commander, Lt. Col. Matt Lopez, said he wasn't aware of any other members of the unit with similar ailments to LeBleu.
Fellow Marines call him "Blue," and say the Marine kept a cool head as his 160-man company guarded a base near the Syrian border.
"He's a real resilient guy, the most relaxed, confident person you'll ever meet," said Lance Cpl. Rob Whittenberg, 23, of Spring Branch, Texas.
The infection developed gradually.
In mid-December, just months after he returned from Iraq, LeBleu told his new wife he felt tired, a little under the weather.
Still, he was strong enough to drive them home to Louisiana for the holidays from his Marine Base in Southern California, going for 36 hours straight. On Jan. 2, he found the strength to go wild boar hunting with relatives.
"We kept telling him to go to a doctor, but he said it was just a sinus infection," Melany LeBleu said. "Of course, we didn't think it was anything major."
Days later, he felt much worse during the drive back to the Marine base at Twentynine Palms. In Texas, LeBleu felt so nauseated he had to pull over. They made it back to their home on the base, but he didn't get better.
On Jan. 10, she took him to a base emergency room, which sent him to Loma Linda University Medical Center, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.
"He couldn't keep anything down, not even water," she said.
As recently as Thursday, he was jaundiced and swelling but could still answer questions, Hillebrand said.
Within 24 hours, however, he was no longer coherent and had to be put on life support.
Without a new liver, his other organs would have started to fail, his doctor said.
About 17,500 people are waiting for liver transplants in the United States, Hillebrand said. LeBleu's family and friends had sought a liver from someone with O-positive blood as a directed donation, outside the usual waiting process.
"It's hard to see your husband in that situation," Melany LeBleu said. "You can't even describe the feeling."