- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

LOMA LINDA, Calif. (AP) — With little time left before his organs would likely fail, Marine Lance Cpl. Chris LeBleu was in surgery yesterday to receive a new liver for a mysterious ailment doctors said would kill him if he didn’t get a transplant.

The unidentified donor from New Mexico was found late Saturday night. Doctors began surgery on Cpl. LeBleu, who had been in a coma and on life support, early yesterday morning.

In the hospital lobby, his 21-year-old wife, Melany, found comfort in photos of her wedding last fall, shortly after Cpl. LeBleu returned from Iraq.

Despite her fears, she has remained optimistic since her husband’s illness was discovered earlier this month. “He’s fighting,” she said Saturday as she took a break from sitting by his bedside.

Several of Cpl. LeBleu’s commanding officers, fellow Marines and other family members huddled with his wife yesterday as they awaited the outcome of the operation.

Burt Parham, who is related to Cpl. LeBleu by marriage, said he expected bad news when he got the call that a liver had been found.

“It was kind of a worried ring, but we were glad of the news,” said Mr. Parham, who lives in the family’s hometown of Lake Charles, La. “It’s a shame somebody has to die. But I mean, it’s God’s will, I guess. We sure have been praying for Chris.”

The cause of the infection is unknown. Dr. Donald Hillebrand, a liver specialist, said Cpl. LeBleu most likely caught a virus or was exposed to a toxin or chemical in Iraq or after his return.

Cpl. LeBleu, 22, was a rifleman in Iraq for seven months as part of a 2,200-man task force that lost 21 persons and had nearly 200 wounded in action. His battalion commander, Lt. Col. Matt Lopez, said he wasn’t aware of any other members of the unit with a similar sickness to Cpl. LeBleu.

Fellow Marines call him “Blue” and say the Marine kept a cool head as his 160-man company guarded a base near the Syrian border.

The infection developed gradually. In mid-December, just months after he returned from Iraq, the Cpl. LeBleu told his new wife he felt tired, a little under the weather.

Still, he was strong enough to drive them home to Louisiana for the holidays from his Marine base in Southern California, going for 36 hours straight. On Jan. 2, he found the strength to go hunting for wild boar with relatives.

“We kept telling him to go to a doctor, but he said it was just a sinus infection,” Mrs. LeBleu said. “Of course, we didn’t think it was anything major.”

Days later, he felt much worse during the drive back to the Marine base at Twentynine Palms. In Texas, Cpl. LeBleu felt so nauseous he had to pull over. They made it back to their home on the base, but he didn’t get better.

On Jan. 10, Mrs. LeBleu took him to a base emergency room, which sent him to Loma Linda University Medical Center, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles.

“He couldn’t keep anything down, not even water,” she said.

As recently as Thursday, he was jaundiced and swelling, but could still answer questions, Dr. Hillebrand said.

Within 24 hours, however, he was no longer coherent and had to be put on life support.

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