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Second Chance

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Even by rock-and-roll standards, David Crosby seemed to revel in recklessness, spending much of his life in the self-destruct lane, addicted at various times to heroin and cocaine, and with a penchant for speeding that led to several car and motorcycle crashes. In 1985 he served 11 months in two Texas jails after police found a .45 handgun and a freebase pipe with traces of cocaine in his car. And in 1994 the IRS demanded more than $1 million in back taxes and put a lien on all his sources of income, which resulted in his losing his ranch-style home in California’s San Fernando Valley.

By last spring, though, Crosby, 53, seemed reborn. He had kicked the drugs and no longer treated cars like unguided missiles. Happily married for nine years to former recording studio manager Jan Dance, 43, he was planning to start a new family. (He has a daughter, Donovan Ann Crosby, 19, from a previous relationship.) And he was making music again with Stephen Stills and Graham Nash. The threesome, who first got together in 1968, four years after the L.A.-born Crosby got his start with the Byrds, recorded their eighth studio album and had just set out on a six-month, 25th-anniversary world tour.

Then in July, Crosby, crippled by severe abdominal pain, discovered that his liver was badly deteriorated—in part from years of substance abuse. In early fall, doctors told him he would die within six months if he didn’t get a transplant. At that point, Jan learned she was pregnant. “It’s as if God said, ‘Look, you’re going to have to go through this hard ordeal or else you’ll die.’ ” says Crosby. ” ‘But I’m also giving you this little prize.’ ”

Luck was on his side. Crosby received a liver transplant at UCLA Medical Center on Nov. 20, four months after his diagnosis. After seven weeks recuperating (his visitors included Whoopi Goldberg, Don Henley and Dustin Hoffman, as well as bandmates Stills and Nash), Crosby, who last week released a new solo album, It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, returned to his rented adobe home outside Santa Barbara, Calif He spoke about his health—and his hopes—with Los Angeles deputy bureau chief Todd Gold.

TRUTH IS, I’M SCARED OF HOSPITALS. I’VE LOST MANY people I love in those places and didn’t want to end up there myself. So last spring, when I started having severe stomachaches and bloating and tightness in my abdomen, I ignored it. But by June the pains were so bad that several times I had to be helped back to the bus after the show, and on July 11, I had to miss a performance in Salt Lake City. The next week, in Washington, Jan and my manager drove me to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where, after running a bunch of tests, the doctors were quite clear. “You have liver disease,” they told me. “Bulls—t,” I replied. Then I came to my senses and asked, “Okay, what do I do? What do I take?”

The doctors explained that my deteriorating liver stemmed from a case of hepatitis C that had gone undetected for 10 to 15 years. They could not determine its exact source, but the hepatitis didn’t appear to be connected to my drug problems—I was never into needles. But it was exacerbated by the years I spent trying to convert myself into a chemical dump site. Hence, I wound up with a liver that looked like the surface of the moon.

Though the doctors told me to get off the road pronto, I tuned them out. You have to understand two things: I was broke and needed the money, having squandered it on drugs and losing even more because of bad tax advice. And also I was having fun onstage. But on the day we were to play at Woodstock ’94 last August, I lay in our tour bus screaming because of the horrible cramps in my legs—a side effect of the medicine I was taking to reduce the fluids accumulating in my abdomen because of my malfunctioning liver. I’d also begun suffering diminished mental capacity due to hepatic encephalopathy [a brain condition caused by toxic substances accumulating in the blood]. Later that month, Stills and Nash cornered me backstage after a gig. “David, you were a quarter of a beat behind all night,” they said. “What the hell is wrong?”

I burst into tears. Graham and Stephen knew about my liver problem, but only then did I tell them how bad it was. “David, you have to take care of yourself,” they told me. “You have too much to live for.” Returning home to California, I was examined at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and at UCLA. They confirmed the liver disease and told me the devastating news: I was dying, and unless I got a liver transplant it would happen soon.

I’d faced death before. God knows, I could and probably should have died at least a dozen times from overdoses and motorcycle wrecks. I never thought I’d live long enough to give a damn. But I’d been clean for nine years, and I only had to look at Jan to know there was every reason to cherish life. After years of seeing specialists and fertility treatments, we’d found out she was pregnant. Anybody who doesn’t think God has a sense of humor isn’t watching.

Jan and I love each other passionately. That, and the baby inside her, carried us through when we might otherwise have felt defeated. Through September and October I was stable enough to wait at home for a new liver, but by November my condition had severely deteriorated, and I checked into UCLA hospital. I was just trying to get through one day at a time, and each day was hell. Jan and I should’ve been shopping for baby stuff, and I should’ve been taking care of her. Instead she talked to the doctors, read everything and decided how much information I could handle. And I sat in my room in intense pain, my belly getting bigger and bigger with fluids—I gained 21 pounds in less than three weeks—chewing my fingernails off, plagued by such bad nightmares that I was scared to go to sleep.

I was very afraid—of the procedure, and of dying. Jan and I meditated, prayed, talked to ourselves and held each other—whatever helped me believe I was going to be fine. One day my daughter Donovan described a vision she’d had of me standing after the operation with my arms outstretched and light emanating from my fingertips. She said, “Don’t worry, Papa, it’s going to be okay.”

It all helped. On my 16th day, the transplant team entered my room at 5 a.m., announced that a donated organ had arrived and began prepping me for surgery; then they found out the new liver had a tumor. Two days later the same team came again and said, “Hi, we got it.” The donor was a 31-year-old man who was killed in a car accident and who matched my blood type and body size. I know some people think I got special treatment because I was a celebrity—especially since the average wait is six months to a year—and that I didn’t deserve a transplant after my years of drug use. But the people who assign the organs didn’t care who I was—their determining factors are proximity to the organ, blood type, body size and your medical condition. And my history didn’t matter, because the doctors’ primary considerations are, Will this person die without it and will this person do everything to make it work. In my case, since I had stopped doing drugs, the answer to both was yes.

As I was wheeled down to the operating room, Jan and I held each other and sang “Amazing Grace.” When we reached the operating room doors, she gave me a kiss and said, “See you in a minute.”

The operation, which lasted 7 hours, entails cutting you almost in half, moving your organs out of the way so they can get to your liver. When you wake up in ICU, you’re like one of the Borgs from Star Trek—half man, half machine. Tubes are coming out of places that didn’t exist before, you pass in and out of consciousness, and you have no memory of the immediate past. I had some problems. As frequently happens, I suffered a small bout of rejection shortly after the operation, which was treated with immunosuppressants. Then a duct between my liver and small intestine wouldn’t function properly, so they had to open it surgically, and I came down with pancreatitis. Because of all that, it wasn’t until 51 days later—not the usual two or three weeks—that I got to go home.

My prognosis is good. I take about a dozen different medicines—including immunosuppressants and antibiotics—four times a day, though after six months my doctors will start scaling those back. I have to be careful for a while because I don’t have an immune system that can fight even the simplest of germs, but if I mind my P’s and Q’s I stand a very good chance of having a happy and productive life. So I’m basically taking the next year off to get healthy—I plan to diet and exercise—and to help Jan have our miracle baby, a boy due May 24. All in all, this has been an exalting experience; I’ve discovered a depth of compassion and feeling I didn’t know existed. The mail I get still brings me to tears—strangers offering support, people waiting for transplants asking for advice, people fighting the same fight. Some of us will make it, some won’t. But I’ve been given every reason to believe in starting over.