JORDAN RAANANESPN Staff WriterJun 24, 20199 Minute Read
It was late April, with the first two weeks of the New York Giants’ offseason program in the books. Phase 2 was on the horizon. This was the first time for the 2019 season that players were allowed on the field with coaches to work on individual drills.
For a player in Grant Haley’s position, this was an important time of the year. Despite a promising and surprising rookie season, Haley is trying to retain his starting spot as the Giants’ nickel cornerback, a role he earned months after going undrafted out of Penn State.
But none of that mattered given what Haley was dealing with personally. His mother, Dr. Carla Neal-Haley, a pediatrician who had dedicated her life to helping others, needed assistance herself. She was set to undergo a liver transplant that Monday, the first day of Phase 2 of the Giants’ offseason workout program. Grant planned to be at his mother’s side, in a karmic role reversal for the woman who had trekked from the suburbs of Atlanta to all but four of his 49 Penn State games.
It was the Saturday before the transplant, when Neal-Haley would be receiving a piece of a Good Samaritan’s liver to replace the pineapple-sized organ in her body, that the doorbell rang at the Haleys’ home. There was Grant standing in the doorway.
“There is no way I wouldn’t be there for this,” he said to his mom.
The transplant provided hope. Nothing, especially an offseason football practice, was going to stop Haley from making it home for a sizable chunk of the six-week period between OTAs and training camp this summer. The Giants were understanding. They told him to go home and take whatever time necessary.
“Grant just wants to do his part, which is admirable and impressive for these young kids,” Neal-Haley said.
Especially not after the journey they had traveled. Primary sclerosing cholangitis had been eating at Neal-Haley’s body since Grant, her oldest son, was in high school. PSC is a degenerative liver disease, and a transplant is the only cure. The disease left her sleep-deprived and fatigued. The chronic itching was almost unbearable, to the point where it had become difficult to work.
The same woman who would get up at the crack of dawn to cook massive game-day feasts for Grant and his younger brother Wesley and was nicknamed the Energizer Bunny by her residency director during medical school now needed to be granted special permission that would allow her youngest child, Nichelle, to drive herself to school before everyone else in her grade could. Carla’s body no longer permitted her to play the role of supermom like she once did.
“It was tough to see your mom like that,” said Haley, who considers his mom among his best friends. “Your whole life she’s taking care of other people.”
So now he is home. Home, where his mom’s new liver grows stronger. Home, where his mother was given a new lease on life thanks to a selfless woman just miles down the road who wasn’t asked, but nevertheless was willing to help.
Neal-Haley had no choice but to sit and wait. She wasn’t eligible for the donor list for cadaveric livers. Finding a living donor was the only solution, but there isn’t a living donor database for livers like there is for kidneys.
Haley tried to use his growing platform as he entered the NFL to raise awareness. Andrea McSorley, the mother of former Penn State quarterback and close friend Trace McSorley, proactively started a social media campaign as well. “Liver for Carla” was created on Facebook because sitting by while Neal-Haley struggled was never an option.
The search for a donor became public and nationwide, even if the answer to their prayers ultimately was miles away. A Griffin Middle School principal by the name of Cathie Seibert, found her way into their lives through mutual friend Fay Yoast.
Seibert had seen the call for help. Her heart couldn’t ignore it. She got tested to see if she was a match and went with Yoast to meet Neal-Haley. At that point, there was barely a decision to make.
“I was just moved by listening to how much [Carla] helps people, how she changes others’ lives, her medical practice. I was just like, ‘How can I help?'” Seibert said. “She spends her life helping others find success. It’s the least I can do.”
Neal-Haley has a pediatric practice in Smyrna, Georgia. Some of her patients were Seibert’s students. Haley and Seibert were unknowingly in the same circles. Griffin Middle School would have been the school the Haley children attended had gone to public school.
“For me as a spiritual person, I think it’s just divine intervention,” Neal-Haley said. “God had a plan and this was supposed to be how it all worked out.”
The transplant happened on Monday, April 29. Seibert had about 60% of her liver removed. It’s expected to grow back to 90% of its original state. That’s the incredible part: The liver rejuvenates inside the body.
Neal-Haley had the organ that wrapped around her stomach and tucked uncomfortably into her rib cage removed. Of course, the doctor in her had them take a picture of the liver that was twice its normal size after the procedure.
“Huge” is how her son described the picture of it.
Neal-Haley had a small piece of Seibert’s liver inserted. It’s expected to grow to nearly full size. Neal-Haley has experienced some complications since, including a bile duct that leaked. But that was minor considering the open-heart surgery she had last year in preparation for the transplant.
Neal-Haley is making significant progress and her long-term outlook is positive.
“I felt the difference almost immediately when I woke up from the surgery,” she said.
The itching has deteriorated. Her energy level is up. You can hear it in her voice. It’s as if the Energizer Bunny has been recharged. When Carla attended a soccer banquet this week for her daughter, friends were saying, “Oh my god. You look like the old Carla. We haven’t seen the old Carla in so long.”
Neal-Haley was in the hospital for almost two weeks following surgery. Seibert spent five days there before being discharged. She returned to school three weeks after the operation. Upon her return, it wasn’t uncommon for students to stop her and thank her for helping their doctor.
Seibert has since begun running and jet skiing and believes she’s rewritten the bell curve for the recovery of liver donors. Her only limitation is that she can’t lift heavy objects. That will take time.
It’s a small price to pay given the effect she’s had on another life. She’s a real-life hero, an angel in the eyes of the Haleys, even if she refuses to accept the label.
Grant has back the mom he remembers before the PSC began eating at her body and soul. He recognizes a light that had dimmed in recent years.
“She’s doing well. Spirits are high,” he said. “Symptoms from the sickness have gone down. You can tell the way — I know my mom my whole life — when she’s sick you can tell the difference from how she used to be and how she is now.”
Neal-Haley and Seibert have become friends. How could they not? They live near each other. They recovered and rehabbed together, taking laps side by side around the hospital floor. It’s not uncommon for Seibert to send messages of encouragement or jokes to Neal-Haley.
They have a date planned for April 29, 2020. That is when they will celebrate the anniversary of the transplant by hiking nearby Stone or Kennesaw Mountain, a journey possible because of the transplant.
The cause is ‘dear to my heart’
It’s early June, just over a month after the surgery. Grant is representing Team Haley at the Liver Life Walk New York City. This has become his purpose, and he views it as an opportunity to use his platform on an issue that affects families like his. “I expect to do more stuff with that,” Grant said. “It’s a cause that is near and dear to my heart.”
Not that you would have ever noticed his turmoil. On or off the field, he never let it show. Haley was a team captain and three-year starter at Penn State. He started nine games with the Giants last season and had the highest grade of any cornerback in the NFC East working out of the slot, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Living with him [at Penn State] and hanging out with him, we talked about it, but it wasn’t really anything you saw affect him,” current Giants and former Penn State running back Saquon Barkley said. “The only thing you could do is hope and pray. Hope and pray that everything works out.”
They hoped. They prayed. They waited. And it worked out because of Seibert. It’s an experience and cause that will forever be a part of Haley’s fabric.
Like mother, like son. Neal-Haley is starting a nonprofit called Be Not Afraid along with the website Donate Live Liver. Its goal is to provide a living donor database for medical centers to use for individuals dealing with similar issues.
“It’s a pretty rare thing that people don’t really talk about much,” Neal-Haley said. “I can do that to help out and raise awareness and raise money and do whatever I can. Give back to the liver foundation.”
As Haley prepares for his second professional season, he expects his mother to be back as a staple at games. He projects that by mid-September she will be cleared to travel. Neal-Haley insists she will be there in August for the Giants’ preseason games. It’s yet another sign her life is returning to normal.
“The demeanor is back. The difference in her voice, in seeing her, it’s a night-and-day difference,” Haley said. “I think for me it’s a testament to the woman she is. I think it defines my family as a whole. Adversity and not letting the circumstances dictate your behavior and your attitude. She’s the defining person that showed me that whatever happens, don’t look at the negative. Look at the positives.”