Baltimore policeman shot in line of duty survives once again

Gene Cassidy gets life-saving liver transplant

September 14, 2012|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

Gene Cassidy thought he was lucky to survive being shot in the head twice 25 years ago when he was a Baltimore policeman, so a second near-death ordeal recently seemed unreal.

Just 27 years old, Cassidy lost his sight after a man he was trying to arrest on an assault warrant fired at him.

The shooting, and his survival, made Cassidy a legend in Baltimore police ranks and became fodder for "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," the book by David Simon, and later a TV series, about crime in Baltimore.

Last year, bad news struck again. This time Cassidy was diagnosed with end-stage cirrhosis of the liver caused by hepatitis C. He contracted the disease from blood transfusions while being treated all those years ago — in the days before blood was tested for the disease.

Once again, Cassidy faced death. And again he has survived.

In June, the now 52-year-old Cassidy received a desperately needed liver transplant. He shared his story Friday at a news conference at University of Maryland Medical Center, where the surgery was performed.

It wasn't an easy journey. He had to wait months for a transplant, and Cassidy said his body and mind deteriorated. He refused to give up and tried to stay positive, continually telling himself he was a fighter; that he would continue to live.

"You keep going and swinging away," he said.

Cassidy and his family began to suspect something was wrong in May 2011. His entire body was swollen and his feet hurt so much that he couldn't walk. Doctors couldn't figure out what the problem was until a blood test revealed the hepatitis.

He became one of the thousands of baby boomers who contracted the slow-progressing disease unknowingly and have been walking around with it for years. It is so prevalent that the federal government recently called for all members of Cassidy's generation to be tested for the disease.

After the shooting, Cassidy learned to live without sight. He earned a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University and went back to work teaching at the city's police academy. His presence was a powerful message to recruits about what could happen in the line of duty.

His children, Lauren and Kevin, now 24 and 21, respectively, hadn't been born when their dad was shot. All they knew was the strong father who took them to Ravens games and loved his job.

"He was like any other dad, except he couldn't drive," said Lauren, who works for a staffing agency.

Kevin said his dad didn't allow negative talk.

"He always told us to stay positive and to never give up, no matter what it is," Kevin said. "He would tell us there is always someone in a worse position than you."

It was rough watching their dad succumb to hepatitis, they said. He dropped 60 pounds from his muscular frame, developed over years of daily workouts. He was always tired and eventually had to stop working.

Despite his illness, Cassidy kept the rest of the family hopeful.

"Every time we would get down, he would say it's just a bump in the road," said his wife, Patti.

Simon chronicled Cassidy's story in a March article in The Baltimore Sun. As he interviewed Cassidy, the once-vibrant man looked gray and weak. Simon said the sight of Cassidy worried him. But Cassidy himself wasn't worried.

"We were scared. Gene wasn't," Simon said. "There is something very Zen about the way he's dealt with everything since the shooting."

As the disease progressed, doctors said Cassidy needed a transplant to survive.

But getting a transplant is not easy. There aren't enough donated livers for everyone who needs one. Nearly 16,000 Americans, including 500 in Maryland, are waiting for a liver transplant, said Dr. John LaMattina, Cassidy's transplant surgeon.

The medical community uses a scoring system to give livers to the sickest patients as the organs become available. Cassidy was never sick enough to get an organ.

His doctors suggested he try living organ donation as an alternative. For this procedure, a living person donates half of his or her liver. The liver halves eventually regenerate, allowing both people to live. These donors need to be the healthiest people and are often family members or close friends.

There was no shortage of people willing to give Cassidy a piece of their liver. Lauren, Kevin and Patti all wanted to, but couldn't for various reasons. Lauren's liver was too small, for instance. Hundreds of police officers also came forward — all claiming to be his brother.

"It was the most tremendous outpouring of support I have ever seen," LaMattina said.

Meanwhile, Cassidy's health continued to decline. He was disoriented and became confused when talking to people. His abdomen was constantly swollen, even as the rest of him became skeletal.

When a living donor was located finally, Cassidy's body was too frail for the operation. Meanwhile, his sickness moved him higher on the list for a traditional liver donation. He would just have to wait.

"People have to be so sick to get a transplant," LaMattina said.

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