Mike Galati got home from his job at Johnson & Johnson on Monday, settled in to eat dinner and watched TV. Another day seemed to have passed without the news he needed, the search for the liver donor he needed continued.
Then his phone rang and an incredible 36-hour chain of events began. It was John Gaine, the brother of former UConn women's basketball player Courtney Gaine. A long-time family friend had died suddenly of an aneurysm, the man was an organ donor and his son wanted Galati to receive his father's liver.
"We all kind of thought, 'this is a bittersweet story, and incredible act of kindness," Courtney Gaine said. "But it's probably not going to work out."
Though the deceased man, Judge J. Michael Conroy, was 67, his liver was exceptionally healthy and appeared to be a match. Surgeons traveled to Maryland to harvest the organ and, before he knew it, Galati was at Yale-New Haven Hospital. He was told he had a "direct donor" and prepped for the transplant. It was performed at 4 a.m. Wednesday, and it was successful.
"My brother told me that when the doctors [Sukru H. Emre and Steven Peter Yoo] came out of the operating room, they looked like they had pitched a no-hitter," said Galati, who was moved out of intensive care Friday and is recovering nicely. "They had ear-to-ear grins."
Galati's search for a liver gained attention last month when UConn baseball coach Jim Penders revealed he was testing to donate a part of his liver to his ex-teammate. Galati, who pitched for UConn in the mid-90s, was also a practice player for the women's basketball team.
"We got to play a lot of defense," Galati said, "Not much offense. We couldn't block any shots. They have to be tough, thick-skinned women to play on that team – Geno [Auriemma] demands the best from them, and rightfully so."
Galati, now 37, and Gaine became close and dated for seven years. They broke up more than 10 years ago but remained friends. Once she watched Galati play in a basketball game and saw that he could barely get up and down the court.
"I was almost in tears watching him," she said. "He was only about 31, and I knew something was wrong."
Eventually, Galati was diagnosed with Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC), a disease that causes inflammation of the bile ducts inside and outside the liver. He began having problems with his liver, he said, when he was a freshman at Southington High School, but overcame it to pitch. After turning 30, he was diagnosed PSC.
It's a slow moving disease, Galati said, but it had progressed to the point where doctors told him he was unlikely to get a cadaver's liver in time; he needed to find a live donor to survive. Penders helped put the word out through UConn's website during this past season, and former teammates from the Cape Cod League did the same, and soon there was a sizable pool of willing candidates. Penders and his wife, Brooke, both tested, and Jim Penders, who caught Galati at UConn in 1994, was nearly a match.
"I was mentally prepared to go with Jim Penders," Galati said.
When Penders learned, a day after UConn's season ended in the NCAA Tournament, that he was not a match, he said, it felt like a "punch to the gut." But he, and others, continued the search. Gaine had already been involved in trying to find a live donor.
"I just want to go and give Jim Penders and Brooke a hug," Gaine said. "All I could do was help spread the word, and it shows that social media, for all the criticism, can do some really wonderful things with situations like this."
When Gaine saw the story about Penders' willingness to donate in The Courant on May 29, she posted it on her Facebook page and one of her high school friends in the D.C. area, John Conroy, was particularly touched by it. He also posted it, and wrote to her that "this story is about everything that's great about sports and humanity."
Then, last Sunday, J. Michael Conroy, John's father, had a brain aneurysm and his son flew from Minnesota back home to Maryland. He remembered the story and immediately contacted Gaine about donating his liver to Galati.
"It wasn't just Mike," John Conroy said. "My father also donated two lungs, two kidneys and muscle tissue to others. And his heart will be used for medical research."
The week was a whirlwind for Gaine.
"I'm still sort of in shock," Gaine said. "It's all so beautiful and crazy, and yet it's so sad."
The Yale-New Haven transplant team took it from there. Dr. Manuel Rodriguez- Davlos flew to Maryland to extract the liver. "He wanted to see if it was really as good as it looked on paper," Galati said. Emre, Yoo and Cary A. Caldwell performed the surgery. After removing Galati's liver, they told him that he would have had less than a year to live without the transplant.
Galati has been texting photos from his hospital bed and Gaine already sees an improvement in his color. "I'm beginning to look like the old me," he said. "They say that in four weeks or so I will start to feel like a new man."
The takeaway from all this, Gaine and Galati hope, is an increased awareness and willingness to be an organ donor.
"In terms of percentage of the population," Galati said, "Connecticut ranks 48th in registered donors. Connecticut is too smart, too enlightened, too altruistic a state to rank 48th. There are just a lot of misnomers out there. This man's willingness to be a donor changed my life."