PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Hockey fans remember longtime defenseman Lyle Odelein as a tough player who wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves.
Odelein spent most of his career with the Montreal Canadiens where he won a Stanley Cup in 1993 but he retired as a Pittsburgh Penguin in 2006 with 182 career fights to his name.
It was just last year that Odelein faced the biggest fight of his life.
Odelein nearly died after getting a blood infection.
Doctors at Allegheny General Hospital said he was the sickest patient they ever had and that he was going to die.
Then they came up with a way to save his life with a surgery that has only been attempted on a couple of patients in the world.
Since retiring from the NHL in 2006 as a Pittsburgh Penguin, Odelein filled his days with family, friends, and spending time on his ranch in Canada, as well as playing golf.
It was a golf trip to Scottsdale, Arizona that almost killed him.
SUSAN KOEPPEN: So you hit the ball like out in the rough and you went to go get it?
ODELEIN: Yeah, I was looking for it. It went into the cactus, it’s called the jumping cactus.
Odelein was pricked by a jumping cactus which he didn’t realize would lead to a serious and potentially deadly blood infection.
KOEPPEN: You didn’t think much of it?
ODELEIN: No, not at all.
Odelein basically thought he got sick with the flu and some rest would help him recover.
“I was sleeping like 18 hours a day and didn’t feel well, didn’t leave the house,” he said.
Eventually, his friends would bring him to Allegheny General Hospital Emergency Room.
“When I got the call that Lyle was coming in, I met Lyle down at the emergency room and he didn’t look so good,” recalled Dr. Ngoc Thai, a transplant surgeon at Allegheny General Hospital.
Things went from bad to worse, the blood infection from the cactus had traveled to Odelein’s heart and his organs began shutting down.
He made a living fighting on the ice and he was now in a fight for his life.
“Please don’t let me die, please don’t let me die, Laurel, and I did everything I could to save his life,” Odelein’s wife Laurel recalled him saying to her in the hospital.
Laurel was with him as he slipped into a coma and doctors told her it did not look good.
“He was playing golf,” she recalled. “You can’t tell me that, he’s 49-years-old, there’s got to a plan B.”
Transplant surgeon Ngoc Thai and a team of doctors including cardiac surgeon Stephen Bailey came up with plan B. They would replace his heart valve and then do a double organ transplant all in one day.
“He’s probably the sickest patient we’ve ever done in terms of a transplant,” said Dr. Ngoc Thai. “Not only did he need a liver, it had deteriorated, he needed a kidney, he needed an aortic valve on top of that. Each one of those surgeries is a major surgery and to do all three in one person was a lot.”
The doctors knew it was a long shot.
“We felt like even though it was high-risk, it was worth taking the risk to give him a shot at survival,” Dr. Stephen Bailey recalled.
Survive he did but the surgery left him temporarily paralyzed.
He fought, just like he had in the NHL, and it took him six months before he could walk again.
KOEPPEN: Lucky to be here?
ODELEIN: (through tears) Yeah…
One year later, Odelein is back playing golf and living life to the fullest, knowing he beat the odds.
KOEPPEN: Do you look in the mirror and say, ‘Wow, am I lucky?’
ODELEIN: I got a smile on my face every day.