Liver recipient seeks fresh start
Noah Dean Baker, left, and his partner, Ken Sprouls, look over the bill Baker received for a liver transplant at their home in Bloomington.
BLOOMINGTON — Noah Dean Baker has a second chance at life, so he's remaking himself.
Gone is the high-flying, well-dressed, heavy-drinking real estate professional who was more concerned about money, clothes and travel bonus points than helping his fellow man.
"That's so far from who I am now," Baker, 47, said last week in the modest west-side home he owns with Ken Sprouls, his partner since 1997.
Now, Baker is planning to get trained in a new, still-to-be-determined career so he can focus on helping people.
"I'd like to give back to the community by being around people whose life has dealt a heavy burden," Baker said. He spoke with a quiet determination, even though he was fatigued, his feet were swollen, he had no feeling in his fingertips, and he was cold, despite wearing sweatpants, a hooded sweat shirt and cap.
"I never said `I helped someone.' I have to give back or the gift of the liver means nothing."
Baker is reinventing himself after defeating liver failure — with the help of family and friends and medical professionals whose work included a liver transplant.
"I was expected to die," Baker said. "But I never once gave up."
"Dean's persistence in battling the disease process was the most important part of the equation," said Dr. David Rzepczynski, his gastroenterologist with OSF Medical Group, Bloomington.
"Since he was reinvented physically," Rzepczynski said, "he wants to reinvent himself socially and emotionally. I think that's great."
Baker was raised in Bloomington-Normal and said his focus on materialism and career success was rooted in growing up in a poor family. But he also had insecurities that he masked by driving hard in his career and social life.
"I was superficial," Baker said. "I always told Ken that I wanted to make more money than him." Sprouls, 41, is a hair stylist.
Baker worked for a coast-to-coast student housing corporation. He was among a few national trainers who traveled the country and whose broad range of responsibilities included firing, hiring and training staff.
He was on the road during the week and returned home to Bloomington on weekends. He was aggressive and confident.
When company executives were in town, going out for drinks would be part of the visit. But because Baker wasn't allowed to socialize with people he supervised, he became lonely on the road and turned to vodka.
What no one knew was that Baker had Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency. Alpha-1 is an inherited disorder resulting from a reduced amount of the alpha-1 protein, and it can result in liver failure.
Baker was among trainers terminated by the corporation in September 2009 after the housing bubble burst and the recession began. "It had nothing to do with my job performance," he said.
"I was so depressed," Baker recalled. "I thought I failed myself. I thought I failed Ken."
Unable to find a replacement job, Baker's drinking increased. In August 2011, he woke up one morning with his stomach looking like a basketball.
"It went from spare tire weight to looking like a pregnant belly within a few days," Sprouls said.
Tests and treatment at OSF St. Joseph Medical Center followed as Baker was going through alcohol withdrawal. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, a liver disease characterized by scarring of liver tissue, leading to loss of liver function.
Baker — who became a patient of Rzepczynski in September 2011 — was told to stop drinking and go on a low-sodium diet. He complied.
In January 2012, Baker's condition deteriorated. Knowing that Baker hadn't had a drink in months, Rzepczynski referred Baker to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago for evaluation for a liver transplant.
At Northwestern in March, Baker was diagnosed with Alpha-1.
"Because of Alpha-1, I was destined to have liver issues, but the alcohol made it worse," Baker said doctors concluded. Rzepczynski agreed.
By August, Baker was bedridden at Northwestern. He had fluid retention in the abdominal cavity, diminished sleep and memory, jaundice, his legs and abdomen were swollen, he had diminished blood flow and impaired kidney function.
"He was very close to death," his doctor recalled.
He and Sprouls were told Aug. 5 that his outlook for getting a liver in time were slim.
"I truly thought I was going to die," Baker said. But that night, in what Baker believes is a miracle, an organ became available when a young girl needed only 25 percent of a donated liver for transplantation. That left the remaining 75 percent for Baker.
The transplant surgery Aug. 6 was a success. After two more weeks at Northwestern, Baker spent three weeks at Methodist Medical Center in Peoria for physical therapy and came home Sept. 14. He credited his relatives, Sprouls and his family, and friends with helping in his recovery and assisting around the house.
"Ken, for the past year, has sacrificed his own well-being to take care of me," Baker said.
Sprouls responded, "When a loved one is sick, you need to take care of 'em."
"What people did for me and the compassion they showed — I'm so grateful and humbled," Baker said.
"Each day, I get stronger," Baker said. He takes 20 pills a day and doesn't know whether his health will return to its level before he got sick.
"At the end of the day, I thank God that I'm alive. And I'm going to get better."
He's been thinking about the people who helped him — including his organ donor and family. They are motivating him to change his career when his endurance returns.
"I actually like who I am now." Baker said when he returns to work, "I'd like to take a back seat and make a difference without being noticed."
"He is not the same person," Rzepczynski said. "The joy of seeing Dean where he is now — you can't replace that feeling."
"At 47," Baker said, "I am finding out who I truly am."
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