A Wrestling Connection

Family overcomes adversity

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A complex rhythm is involved in the sport of wrestling. A certain balance between grace and strength is needed to conquer an opponent on the mats. Each match demonstrates persistence and determination.

For Dave and Vickie LaMotte--who know a few things about wrestling -- a similar exercise in courage and strength was intertwined in the fight to save their son's life.

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Payson High School wrestling coach Dave LaMotte and his wife Vickie have lived for wrestling. Wrestling turned out to save their son's life. A family friend, whose sons Dave coached, donated half of his liver to the LaMotte's son.

Jeff LaMotte, Dave and Vickie's youngest son, underwent a successful liver transplant on Oct. 24, 2006, after a lifetime problem that had long been misdiagnosed.

Jeff had sclerosing cholangitis, a disease that caused a hardening and blockage of his bile duct. Bile, which breaks down fat, built up in his liver, ultimately leading to the damage and death of his liver cells. Without treatment, Jeff's liver would fail.

The longtime and award-winning wrestler was attending West Liberty State College in West Virginia in the footsteps of his father and alongside his older brother, Matt. The Academic and Athletic All-American brothers were top wrestlers on the team and in peak physical condition.

It wasn't until after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks moved Jeff to conquer his fear of donating blood that he discovered something might be seriously wrong with him.

"Jeff hated needles," Dave said. "(My old coach) and Jeff waited in line to give blood and they waited like an hour. Then (the Red Cross) was closing up and they said, ‘we'll take one more.'"

The indication that something was wrong even came in a remarkable instance.

The Red Cross notified Jeff that his liver enzymes were elevated. His blood was not usable and he needed to see another doctor.

"He called me and said ‘mom what do you think I should do?'" Vickie said.

After another blood test returned the same results, the LaMotte's made an appointment with a doctor in Phoenix.

"There's nothing you can do," Dave said of the doctor's news. "We can treat it with drugs for a while, but he'll need a liver transplant."

Because Jeff was in his early 20s and an athlete, his priority for a transplant was relatively low.

Jeff continued wrestling even after the diagnosis, while the family waited for a donor.

After he became very sick and was hospitalized in April 2006, however, a transplant surgeon from Banner Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix recommended a live donor, rather than waiting for a cadaver transplant.

"The doctors said we were waiting too long for a cadaver," Dave said.

"They were worried about cancer," Vickie added. "The (doctors) said if you can find a donor, we'll do it."

Immediately, members of the family stepped forward to help Jeff. But his brother and father had different blood types and his mother's liver was too small. Other family members were also unable to donate.

As Jeff's condition worsened, family friend and local carpenter Brent Lee courageously offered to be the donor.

"Brent doesn't like to take credit, but we know God used him," Dave said. "He saved our son's life."

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Payson High School wrestling coach Dave LaMotte and his wife Vickie talk about their son and his illness.

As the wrestling coach at PHS, Dave coached Lee's two older sons--both state champion wrestlers -- and is currently coaching a third son.

"He was just real persistent," Dave said. "He said he was going to do it."

After several more months of paperwork and bureaucracy, the pair was prepped for the operation in which half of Lee's liver would be transplanted into Jeff's body.

"When he came out and he was in the recovery room I could see that this disease was gone," Dave said. "He looked at his mom and the first thing he said was ‘they just fixed your defective son.'"

Both men felt the connection they now literally shared.

"When Brent came to the recovery room, his first words were ‘how's Jeff?'" Dave said with a smile. "Jeff's first words when we got to see him were, ‘how's Brent?'"

Wrestling facilitated the connection between the two families and it also played a role in Jeff's recovery. Had Jeff not been so physically fit, the process would have been much more difficult.

"Doctors loved working on Jeff," Dave said of his son's fitness.

While the transplant was remarkably successful and the road to recovery seemed certain, an unlucky complication was identified several weeks ago.

A portion of Jeff's bile duct was still too narrow, because of scar tissue from the surgery. The result caused him to become sick again.

He is in the midst of a monthly procedure to widen it. The process is grueling and may take up to a year.

Dave resigned from his coaching position at PHS about two weeks ago, after initially learning of Jeff's complication.

"We're confident we're going to be okay," Dave said. "We were just real scared there the last couple weeks and I didn't want to start to program and have to pull out."

He said he resumed his role at the helm of the PHS wrestling program this week, because his son's condition has improved and the complication is now under control.

Jeff is now a special education teacher at Queen Creek Middle School. As destiny intended it, he's currently gearing up to coach the "He'll be a great coach," Dave said. "He's getting ready to start things up in January."

Now that the scary times seem to be in the past, Vickie said the ordeal has taught her to re-evaluate things.

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Jeff LaMotte and Brent Lee now share a connection few could understand. Lee donated half of his liver to LaMotte last October.

"You find out what's important," she said.

"And it's not what you accumulate. It's not about your career. It's about family and your faith. It has made us stronger in our faith and stronger as a family."

She also has a new respect for her son.

"He has given us such a gift of how strong you need to be," Vickie said.

"I don't know how he did it. I wouldn't have been able to do it if I was him." Dave concurs.

"The miracle of this is unbelievable," he said. "We've always known that he was going to come out of this. But what he's gone through is just unbelievable. Something put us back here and something connected us with Brent."

Dave, too, stressed the closeness of his family.

"Our oldest son, Matthew, has always been Jeff's big brother," Dave said.

"Through this whole process, Matt has been a godsend. He's taken care of his little brother."

A family that was once pinned by a terrifying trial is slowly returning to normal, thanks to an unthinkably selfless gift and lots of love and faith.

"We know we're going to be OK," Dave said.

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