SVC coach gives the gift of life

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BURLINGTON, Mass. — It's hard to predict when or where a potential lifetime friendship will form — and in what capacity that bond may help one or the other. Recently, a friendship created at Southern Vermont College helped one former student-athlete provide another with a second chance at a long and healthy life.

SVC head men's soccer coach Greg Gilmore stepped up to the plate in a big way on Wednesday, donating part of his liver to Eric Wells, a long-time friend and former teammate on the Mountaineer baseball team. The surgery went without complications, and the two are already starting their recovery.

The pair were not only teammates, working together as a battery with Gilmore pitching to Wells during the 2010 season. This, however, would be the most crucial strike that Gilmore would ever deliver to his friend.

Gilmore shared just over 50 percent of his liver to Wells through a 12-hour procedure done at Lahey Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., after an intensive screening process that took nearly two years to complete.

The SVC coach had to submit to a number of lifestyle changes to prepare himself for the surgery and faced potential complications that could have stemmed from it. He did not let those obstacles deter him, however, from giving Wells the much-needed donation.

"This was the right thing to do," Gilmore said of assisting his friend. "I had the capability to help someone out in a major way, regardless of how frightening it was. I think, a lot of times, people let fear dictate decisions, and sometimes we focus too much on what might frighten us instead of what is the right thing to do. You think of how many times we see videos in the news of people doing bad things and all the bystanders who are just filming instead of stopping what's happening."

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The 28-year-old Wells required the transplant after being diagnosed at 22 with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a chronic disease that slowly damages the bile ducts in the liver. In patients with PSC, the ducts become blocked due to inflammation and scarring; that causes bile to accumulate in the liver which gradually damages cells in the organ and leads to cirrhosis or fibrosis of the liver. As cirrhosis progresses and the amount of scar tissue increases, the liver slowly loses its ability to function. That scar tissue can cause blockage which prevents the bile ducts from draining properly, leading to infection of the bile.

Symptoms include fatigue, itchy skin, and jaundice— a yellowing of the skin and eyes. They can be sporadic and can worsen over time. As the disease continues, the bile ducts may become infected which can lead to episodes of fever, chills, and abdominal pain.

"Most people think the hardest part of having my disease is the fatigue, pain levels, constant itching, or the fact that I have jaundice," Wells said. "But you get used to most of it when you have dealt with it for so long. We had spent two years trying to find a donor, and waiting was truly the most difficult part. My disease is so unknown in the medical world that, most of the time, patients just wait to become more ill. I became much more ill two years ago, and it was just a waiting game — hoping that a donor would be approved and we could move on. The energy it took to mentally battle myself and stay positive is probably the hardest thing I've gone through."

PSC advances very slowly, and many patients may have the disease for years before symptoms develop. Symptoms may remain at a stable level, they may show up intermittently, or they may progress gradually. Liver failure can occur 10 to 15 years after diagnosis, but it could take even longer for some PSC patients. Many people with PSC will ultimately need a liver transplant— typically about 10 years after being diagnosed. Additionally, PSC can lead to bile duct cancer, according to the National Organization of Rare Diseases, about 8 to 15 percent are diagnosed with cancer.

About a year after being diagnosed, Wells was put on the liver transplant list. While he did not need the operation immediately, he knew that it would soon become necessary.

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Wells had numerous friends and family try to become his donor but were eventually turned away during the screening process due to a variety of factors: wrong blood types, a different body mass index, and the donor's liver not being large enough to support both parties just being a few.

"When you are in my position as a patient with a chronic illness, I think you'll take anyone who is willing to reach out about testing to be a donor," Wells said. "I was very lucky to have the support from a lot of people who wanted to try and help out. Greg knew I was sick when we attended SVC together, and he was the first one to say that — if I ever needed a transplant — he would be tested. I knew from past tests that Greg and I were pretty similar in body builds, and it seemed to make sense that if he wanted to go through with the process, he would have a good chance at passing. It is funny to think that our friendship and bond carried for six more years after that, and it's amazing that he went through all of the rigorous testing to make that promise a reality."

Gilmore's offer turned out to be more than just talking the talk, although walking the walk came a lot sooner than he expected.

"I admit — I thought I would be 40 and not in the middle of building a program here at SVC," Gilmore confessed. "But the timing now makes it even more important that we got it done. About two years ago, I started getting tested in Hershey, Pa. We thought we had reached the finish line in February, but unfortunately the doctors weren't confident. I changed my diet and lifestyle a bit for the past nine months, and over the Thanksgiving break, we got the final go-ahead from the Lahey Clinic."

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The tremendous friendship that gave Wells his second chance was not one that happened right away. The two enrolled at Southern Vermont for the fall of 2008, registering for classes after being recruited to play different sports: Gilmore for the men's soccer team and Wells for the Mountaineer baseball squad. While they both lived in the same residence hall on campus, it took some time for the pair to become close.

"We weren't friends at first," Gilmore recounted. "Actually, we were the opposite. There was a dodgeball tournament at school, and my team was playing against his. We were both the last person left, and I hit him to win it; he pretended like the ball didn't touch him, and he hit me about 10 seconds later and celebrated like he'd won the World Series."

Gilmore continued, saying, "Eventually, later on during freshman year, we ended up hanging out more and more. We were both highly-competitive people, and eventually I got over the fact that he was parading around as a better dodgeball player than me. It took some time, though."

That bond became stronger over the years, growing exponentially as the pair came to work together on the baseball field as a pitcher-catcher duo for the Mountaineers.

"Greg has always played a funny part in my sports career," said Wells. "He would tell me about how he pitched in high school, and I would joke with him about that and didn't take him seriously. There were a couple of injuries on the team my sophomore year, and I asked Greg to throw a bullpen to me in the gym. Low-and-behold, he knew what he was doing and ended up playing a part out of our pen as a relief pitcher for the rest of the season."

Gilmore would go on to make 32 appearances for SVC in the next three years, winning three games in 2012 while racking up 41 strikeouts in 72.2 innings as a Mountaineer. He reached those figures while also starting in 73 games during a four-year career for the men's soccer team — a program record which still stands today.

"I look back and think about how we competed at a high level and tried to do our best for each other and our teammates who had our backs," Wells added. "He still has my back, and we are now going through another battle to defeat a different type of opponent."

Wells would end up transferring to Oneonta State in 2011 and his junior season, and he then coached there for one year after graduating in 2013 with his bachelor's degree in history. But he and Gilmore would maintain their friendship over the years and across the distance before getting close once again when Wells started working as the head of player and coaching development at Seacoast United — a youth baseball club for southern New Hampshire.

"Greg and I kept in touch after I transferred," Wells said. "After graduation, I moved to New Hampshire to start my new job at Seacoast United — which happened to be the same place where he grew up and was living at the time. It was nice to reconnect and hang out like we used to."

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Once the time came, Gilmore had to not only take an assortment of tests to make sure he was a compatible donor, but he also needed to alter his lifestyle to prepare for the surgery and the following recovery process.

"Over the last nine months, I've had to put more green things into my body than I had in the previous 26 years," he said while maintaining a sense of humor. "I don't even think I knew how to spell spinach nine months ago. I think that, anytime you make a serious change, it just takes time to adjust and get used to a new routine. Socially, there's been a few moments where I've had to explain that I can't eat this or drink that; but when people find out why, they're pretty supportive. It's not like I'm being forced to hold my breath as long as I can while walking on fire, I just had to eat healthier. Things could've been much worse."

Over the next six months, Gilmore's remaining liver is anticipated to grow back to normal and recover about 90 percent by July.

"I've spoken with the doctors about my recruiting timeline and goals, and I'm not expecting to be held back too much," Gilmore said. "Early spring will be tough. But we've already got a very solid incoming class for the men's soccer team next season, and I'm confident this isn't going to hold us back."

Both Gilmore and Wells have not had to deal with the pre-surgery and immediate aftermath alone as they have received tremendous backing from friends and family. Additionally, Seacoast United helped to set up a fundraiser which received over 200 percent of its requested donation amount— money that will be used for the recovery process of each former Mountaineer.

"It's nice to be supported," Gilmore commented. "Eric, his family everyone has been extremely helpful. Seacoast United really stepped up and helped out with fundraising early on as it was a lot of travel for all of the testing, and they've done a great job making sure this isn't a burden for me. Honestly, seeing all the support pour out from everywhere for Eric has been a great reminder of how important this is."

"Greg and I had a lot of conversations about the surgery and if we were scared," Wells added. "I was nervous, of course, and scared because it was a big surgery. However— like I told him— I needed to do this no matter what. But it did make it easier that it is one of my best friends going through it with me and that we can lean on each other when needed."

Gilmore is optimistic about his recovery and expects to be back on the touchline for Southern Vermont in the fall for his second season at the helm of the men's soccer program— coaching a group of young men who are in the process of building friendships that may, one day, become as strong as that which he shares with Wells.

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