`Noble' gift for uncle: a chance to survive

Lacrosse: Defenseman Rich Beecher is taking the semester off at Towson and missing this season to donate half his liver to his cancer-stricken uncle.

February 28, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Rich Beecher spent the past year chasing a dream to play for Towson University's lacrosse team. The dream led him to a 100-foot-high scaffold, where he videotaped team practices and games. It took him on daily three-mile runs around campus. It sent him to a summer league in search of more playing time.

It was a dream that pushed him through all sorts of physical endeavors to become quicker, more agile and 25 pounds lighter.

Little did he know that his labor of love would wind up serving a greater cause - saving his uncle's life.

On Tuesday, Beecher, 20, will donate more than half his liver to Donald Beecher, 46, in a marathon surgical procedure at New York University Medical Center. The treatment of taking a portion of a healthy person's liver has gained widespread use in the past four years to help alleviate the lengthy wait for a cadaver's liver.

The elder Beecher learned he had a malignant tumor on his liver last July and was prepared to live out the last year of his life on a cross-country tour rather than endure a waiting list of more than 18,000 for cadaver livers.

A living donor was his only true hope for survival. But Beecher, a Glen Burnie native who moved to Parish, N.Y., near Syracuse years ago, was adamant in his refusal to ask anyone for a liver.

His older brother, Richard Sr., 54, who works for the Maryland State Highway Administration in Laurel and still lives in Glen Burnie, volunteered to be a donor. But he was rejected because he had cysts on his own liver and kidneys, he said.

Donald Beecher's wife, Judy, was rejected for the potential risk involved, as well.

Personal circumstances with his three sons - two by his wife's previous marriage - preclude them from donating an organ.

"I'll do it. No problem"

That left Rich Beecher, a sophomore at Towson who told his father in November he was willing to be the donor.

"I didn't know Uncle Don was going to go for a living donor until about November," Rich Beecher said. "My dad started getting his tests done in October. He told me in November because he didn't want to worry me.

"I said, `Dad, if you can't do it, I'll do it. No problem.' "

By December, Richard Beecher had been turned down and his son began a battery of tests to determine if he'd qualify. Right after Christmas, Rich Beecher, with an A-positive blood type and in peak health, found out he was a perfect match.

That meant that two months after he had made Towson's lacrosse team - and one year after he had been cut as a freshman - Rich Beecher would have to give up his lacrosse dream. He also would have to withdraw from school, where he had a 4.0 grade-point average in the fall semester as a finance major. He had made the dean's list each of his three semesters when he withdrew in mid-February.

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Beecher's decision to donate his liver was that it was no decision at all, risks and sacrifices notwithstanding.

"There were a lot of different dimensions in my thinking," he said. "I knew I might have to withdraw [from school]. I'm a good student, so I was upset about that.

"Also, with lacrosse, definitely, that was a big part of it. I just made the team. But in reality, the way I was brought up, I could never look at myself [in the mirror] if I didn't do this for my uncle. It was never like a choice. It was never like, `Oh, man, I don't want to give up lacrosse.'

"I knew it was going to be hard to give up lacrosse and hard to give up school for a semester, but it was always going to be there when I got back."

For that, his father says he's noble, his lacrosse coach says he's a hero, and his beneficiary can't thank him enough.

"I'm proud of him for doing it," said Richard Beecher. "It's noble, what he's doing. He's in perfect shape, but he knows there's a risk."

Says Towson coach Tony Seaman: "He's a wonderful human being. He's at a new level in my eyes. I've always had the greatest respect for him; now he's at a new pedestal. I've been coaching a long time, and this is the best story ever."

For Donald Beecher, who has Stage II liver cancer, the words of appreciation come haltingly. He choked up three times in a recent interview trying to tell of his gratitude for Rich and the parents who raised him, Joan and Richard.

In fact, Donald Beecher thanked his brother's family so often and so profusely that word quietly was sent back he needn't keep thanking them. Which drew a hearty laugh from Donald.

"How can you stop thanking them when they're giving me the gift of life?" he said. "I don't know how I'll ever repay them.

"I've expressed my gratitude, my love, to him in person and on the phone. He's a fantastic young man, and I appreciate what Ricky is doing and what my sister-in-law and brother went through sending him up to New York."

Risk low, reward high

Rich Beecher has been lectured on the risks of liver transplantation by his parents and uncle: infection, blood clots, hernias, death.

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