Coatesville coach donates liver to his father

Coach Matt Ortega with his father, Rick, who has liver cancer and had been on a transplant waiting list. "It doesn't surprise me," a former player said of the coach's gift, "because he is a very selfless person."
Coach Matt Ortega with his father, Rick, who has liver cancer and had been on a transplant waiting list. "It doesn't surprise me," a former player said of the coach's gift, "because he is a very selfless person."
Posted: December 19, 2013

COATESVILLE Matt Ortega spent the last few months worrying, but the next football game wasn't what kept the Coatesville head football coach up at night. He found out this summer that his father, Rick, needed a liver transplant.

"He spent many sleepless nights thinking he may not be a match," said Corrie Ortega. "My husband was very adamant he wanted to be the one to do it. He's very, very close to his dad."

After months of trips to the hospital and many blood tests, screenings, consultations, and a biopsy, Matt Ortega, 39, found out in November that he was a match. He was relieved that he could save his father, whom he had written a paper about in high school.

At the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania on Tuesday, doctors removed about 65 percent of Matt Ortega's liver and gave it to his father. The almost-eight-hour surgery went well, Corrie Ortega said, and her husband will stay at the hospital for about a week.

It will be an additional six to eight weeks before Matt Ortega can return to Coatesville Area High School, where he is also a dean of students.

Over the next few months, Matt Ortega's liver will regenerate. When he recovers fully, doctors say, last year's PIAA Class AAAA coach of the year will be able to do everything he did before the surgery.

And in June, about a year after the family learned its patriarch needed the transplant, Matt Ortega is scheduled to be an assistant coach in the 2014 Big 33 Classic football game between Pennsylvania and Maryland.

"It makes me love him even more," Corrie Ortega said of Matt, "just because of what he's teaching our boys."

Matt and Corrie Ortega have three sons, Ricky, 12; Tommy, 10; and Matt, 6.

This is Ortega's fifth year coaching the Red Raiders, who are familiar with Ortega's close-knit family. The coach often has the players over for dinner, and his family goes to the games.

Rick Ortega, 63, was diagnosed in May with liver cancer. He was on the waiting list for a deceased person's liver, but getting an organ from a living donor shortened the wait. Doctors told his family that without a transplant, Rick would live only about another year.

"There aren't enough livers to go around, and people are dying on the wait lists," said Linda Wood, living-donor coordinator for Penn's liver-transplant program. "I don't think many people are even aware that they can do this."

Matt Ortega has always been a role model, not just for his sons but for the players he coaches, said Dylan Morgan, a former right guard and defensive tackle who graduated last year. Morgan said Ortega's dedication was what brought the team from "rock bottom" when the coach arrived to playing last year in a state championship game. Ortega, he said, taught the team the importance of being role models in the community and how football could make a difference in people's lives.

"It doesn't surprise me that he did a liver transplant," Morgan said, "because he is a very selfless person."

Charles Fortney, Matt Ortega's brother-in-law, said doctors gave the option of waiting until January for the transplant, to be sure that the football season was over. Ortega did not want to move the date and was prepared to let his fellow coaches take over if the team made it to the playoffs, Fortney said. Although the team got knocked off in its first playoff game last month, "it just shows where his priorities are," Fortney said. "He was lifesaving."


mbond@philly.com

610-313-8105 @MichaelleBond

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