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SCOTT HARRIS

Children's Health Is Officer's Other Beat

August 28, 1994|SCOTT HARRIS

"Crime is down, and complaints against police officers are down. This trend is continuing." The connection crackled with static. "It's like a doctor looking at the vital signs of a patient, saying, 'This patient is not healthy. But he's moving in the right direction.' "

Mark A. Kroeker on the line. He's the deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, and he called on his cellular phone while making his morning commute from Santa Clarita to downtown Los Angeles.

But Kroeker wasn't calling to talk law enforcement. He was indulging in his favorite off-duty pastime--the World Children's Transplant Fund, a charity devoted to improving pediatric medical care on a global scale. Kroeker wanted to remind me that the last time we talked, before he was transferred from command of the Valley Bureau to command of the South Bureau, I said I might want to write about the charity some other time.

Now, he suggested, might be a good time.

*

To understand the World Children's Transplant Fund, it helps to understand a little about Mark Kroeker. He might be the closest thing the LAPD has to Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties.

He joined the force nearly 30 years ago, in the days of Joe Friday, when the LAPD, rightly or wrongly, was not merely considered L.A.'s finest, but a police department without equal. He took command of the Valley Bureau in March, 1991, not long after a new TV image became associated with the LAPD--a gang of officers beating a black man in Lake View Terrace.

Quick to acknowledge problems, eager to reach out to the community, Kroeker became one of the LAPD's best goodwill ambassadors. If he sometimes seemed an Eagle Scout, it also seemed true that Kroeker, the son of Mennonite missionaries who raised their boy in Africa and Europe, came by his manner naturally.

Consider the story of World Children's Transplant Fund. Kroeker isn't just active in this charity, he's the founder. Today, actor Lorenzo Lamas, the agency's celebrity spokesman, will lead hundreds of motorcycle enthusiasts on a 70-mile backcountry caravan from Newhall to Lake Casitas to raise money for the charity. But in another sense, this journey began in a small town in Argentina.

In January, 1987, Kroeker had traveled to the province of Cordoba, Argentina, as part of a police exchange program. An Argentine physician told him about an 11-year-old girl named Veronica Arguello who was dying of idiopathic cirrhosis of the liver. A transplant might save her, but Argentina lacked the medical technology. Kroeker took it upon himself to bring Veronica, her brother and her mother to Los Angeles with the hope of locating a medical facility that could perform the operation as inexpensively as possible. He started a fund-raising drive to help Veronica, who ultimately underwent surgery at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto in March, 1988.

Veronica's story does not have a happy ending. Her weakened condition and scar tissue from previous operations made the transplant process difficult. Her body rejected three transplanted livers. A group of supporters in Argentina, the United States and Canada mourned her death. Veronica's mother thanked Deputy Chief Kroeker for his efforts and asked him to continue to help children like Veronica, so that her death would not be in vain.

Consultations with leading transplant surgeons made it clear that the solution isn't to bring the children from faraway lands to medical centers capable of such feats, but to find a way to export the technology and expertise. A chief problem in the United States, Kroeker learned, is that people aren't aware of the acute need for organ donation. "Children are dying right here in Los Angeles because organs aren't available," he says.

Kroeker founded the World Children's Transplant Fund to encourage organ donation, to bring medical teams to the United States for intensive training and to help establish pediatric organ transplant centers. So far, the charity, based in Encino, has helped develop transplant capabilities at the Hospital Nacional de Ninos in Costa Rica; the Hospital Italiano in Buenos Aires, and the Filatov Children's Hospital in Moscow. Long-range plans include doing the same at hospitals in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Czechoslovakia and Armenia within the next 10 years.

Come to think of it, Dudley Do-Right never did anything like this.

*

Just the other day, Kroeker took a call from a grieving Whittier woman. Her 16-month-old granddaughter had died while doctors searched for an organ. Now the woman wanted to do volunteer work for the World Children's Transplant Fund.

Kroeker says he has seen many happy endings as well.

"We've had a lot of joy," he says. "It's been a tremendous experience for me personally. . . . To see a sick 2-year-old and a family that's all desperate and distraught. . . . And then, what do ya know, there's going to be a tomorrow for the little guy after all."

Such moments make Kroeker realize that the charity benefits much more than the children and their families.

"I'm a beneficiary," he says. "I have been absolutely, abundantly blessed."

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