For James Hoyt Gleaton, June 28, 2010, is his new birthday.
That’s the day he says he was given a new life. Talking about it, the 54-year-old workingman, with his gruff voice, solid build and hardened hands, can’t help but well up with tears. It’s the day he received an unlikely liver transplant.
Gleaton had no symptoms when he was first diagnosed with liver cancer around Fathers Day 2009. His diabetes doctor noticed an abnormality in his blood work, and they found a malignant tumor in his liver the size of a golf ball. After a few of months of chemotherapy, Gleaton was in remission.
“To go through that was unreal,” said James’ wife Melody Gleaton. “Because you never think it’s gonna touch you, you know. I know plenty of people who have cancer and plenty of people who’ve had cancer and didn’t survive it, but you never think it’s gonna happen to you.”
Fathers Day of this year, James and Melody Gleaton found out there were two more tumors where the old one was, bigger than the first. Their son, Steven, 21, was — and still is—in Iraq with the Marines, while their three daughters, Miranda, 17, Lela, 15, and Adrianna, 13, were headed to church camp. So they decided to wait until the girls returned to tell them.
“Bottom line, as I told the people there: it (was) either a new liver or a pine box,” said James—“Junior” as Melody and his friends call him.
The couple remembers breaking down in Wal-Mart when Lela walked arm-in-arm with her father and said that was how she wanted him to walk her down the aisle at her wedding. They had to tell her that he might not be there. They’re still teary when they talk about it, the fear fresh in their minds.
On June 27, Junior remembers calling Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta around 10:30 a.m., and hearing that they could only wait and see, and that his rare B positive blood type would make it more difficult.
“So I stood right there on that porch (after) I hung up, and said a prayer to the Lord,” Gleaton said. “And I said ‘It’s in Your hands now; whatever You decide, if You want me to live, whatever, it’s up to You.’ And a quarter before 4 that afternoon, they called.”
A healthy woman with B positive blood had died from of a brain aneurysm, and she was an organ donor. Melody was home at 4:30 p.m., and they were at Piedmont at 9:30 p.m.; into surgery at 8 a.m. June 28, and by 1 p.m., he had a new liver.
What’s more amazing, a liver transplant is a difficult surgery for doctors and patients alike. Most patients look yellowish afterward and can hardly walk.
“They couldn’t believe it, they said I’d done great,” Junior said. “They didn’t have to give me a blood transfusion, nothing.”
Gleaton’s color never changed and he was walking the 200-foot distance of the hallway the same day.
The only hiccup was a fluid pocket built up in the left side of wishbone-shaped scar down his chest and across his torso. The doctors reopened that section to extract the fluid, leaving a gaping wound. So, he wears a black bag, like a camera bag, with tubing attached to his belly, called a wound vac, sucks out the excess fluid.
He’s at his home off Sand Hill Road now, even though he should still be at Piedmont. His daughter’s 13th birthday was Aug. 22, and Junior refused to miss it. A nurse comes by every few days to dress and measure his wound and he goes to Memorial Hospital twice a week for blood work.
His life is completely different now.
The Thunderbolt native started working at age 10 on his uncle’s shrimp boat. He spent much of his life working on boats. But now works as a surveyor for Hussey, Gay, Bell and De Young. Before, Junior was working from 5 a.m. until 11:30 p.m. seven days a week.
Drinking led to his cancer, but July 5 marked 20 years since his drop of liquor.
He and Melody have been married 17 years now.
Before he got cancer Melody remembers his temper: “He would get mad at the drop of a hat, ready to fight ya,” she said. But now he’ll walk away.
“Life’s too short (to hold grudges),” said Junior
Now, he can’t lift anything over 10 pounds. He hasn’t worked since May and won’t another for four months; Melody has had to take off to help him. He takes 24 pills a day right now and he’ll have to see a doctor once a month for the rest of his life.
“The pain, it like somebody’s got a hundred pound weight on your chest and you can’t breath,” said Junior. “It’s getting a lot better (though).”
Their church family at Sand Hill Baptist Church has gone above and beyond to help, watching the girls during Atlanta trips, bringing food, paying for gas and even buying a new set of tires for their car.
Although their insurance has covered a lot of the expenses incurred, the medicines and the wound vac are sucking up Gleaton’s short-term disability checks. They are living paycheck to paycheck, so they set up an account at SunTrust bank in his name to accept any help they can get.
But they don’t let it discourage them.
“Positive thinking is a major hurdle jumper,” Melody said.
“As long as you’ve got your family and the Lord, especially the Lord with you, and members of your church, you’ll get through this,” Junior said. “You can feel it, you know the difference because of all the care that people give it’s just, it’s amazing.”