Five months after undergoing liver transplant surgery, Nick Wallace is finally on the attack.
The 13-year-old from Del Mar took the field as an attacker with his club lacrosse team, the North County Falcons, two weeks ago and scored the first goal of his young career. Three more goals, his first hat trick, followed last weekend.
“I was pretty thrilled,” he said, adding that the specially modified padding he wears over his liver and spleen have not held him back. “I’m still like one of the fastest people on my team.”
Early last year, Nick made it clear that, once he got a new liver, he was going graduate from his former role on defense to playing offense. He achieved that goal despite fighting organ rejection just four days after his surgery Sept. 28.
Many prayers, by family, friends and some who had never met him, were said as he laid in an intensive care bed at UCLA Medical Center, heavily medicated with a combination of steroids and immune system-suppressing drugs.
Nick was diagnosed with biliary atresia two weeks after birth. The condition occurs when the liver’s bile ducts do not develop normally and are unable to remove wastes and carry salts that help the small intestine digest fat.
Doctors tried to repair the bile ducts with a special surgery called a Kasai Procedure at age 3½ weeks, but the operation was not able to avert the eventual need for a transplant. The youth has been on the transplant list since his first birthday.
As liver transplants go, it was not an easy surgery, said Deb Atkin, Nick’s mother and a UCLA trained dermatologist. Scarring of the liver, she said, caused the surgery to take twice as long as usual, and a sudden “big bleed” two weeks after the transplant operation required doctors to reopen the surgical site.
After three weeks in the hospital he improved enough to come home, but he continues to fight rejection, taking 25 pills per day.
After so many tense moments in the hospital, his mother said letting him return to the field was not easy. But she said she believes his love of lacrosse has been a deciding factor in his success.
“We quickly realized how lucky he was to have a passion. Once we saw him playing, and how motivated he was, and how it was helping him stay so healthy, it wasn’t something we felt we could take away from him,” Deb Atkin said.
Getting back on the field is just one of Nick’s projects. With the help of his ever-growing list of friends, he has also created a charity called Nick’s Picks, which delivers backpacks full of items, from a yo-yo to a white stuffed seal, to hospitalized children.
The collection was curated by Nick’s own experiences in the antiseptic halls of local hospitals, returning years after year so doctors could monitor the function of his liver as he waited for a transplant to come through.
He has been invited to design a special lacrosse shirt and socks for Nick’s Picks by Adrenaline Lacrosse and is headed to Notre Dame as the guest of lacrosse coach Kevin Corrigan in April. On May 11, he will lead a 5K run/walk benefit for the American Liver Foundation at the San Diego Zoo. At the event he plans to sing a song entitled “Second Chance,” which he wrote to pay tribute to the 16-year-old girl whose liver he received. Though he does not know the girl’s name, Nick said he felt it was important to give thanks for the gift he received.
“I just can’t describe how thankful I am,” he said.
His ambitions do not stop at charity; he would also like to change national organ donation policy.
After his years of waiting for a liver donation, he said he has come to realize that it would make more sense to require people to opt out of, rather than into, becoming organ donors. He said lying in an intensive care bed for three weeks and listening to emergency helicopters land on the roof hammered home the idea that there were simply too few donors to meet the need.
He handwrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking for a five-minute meeting to discuss his idea. Though the letter was hand delivered to the White House by family friend and New York Times best-selling author and attorney Bob Goff, Nick said he has not yet received a reply.
Nick said he’s going to stick with his idea whether or not the president ever returns his letter.
“With my idea I think everybody still has freedom, but it would save a lot of lives,” he said.