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Ex-Timbers goalkeeper Gleeson on medical malpractice lawsuit: Team doctors 'took my life, my livelihood'

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Heading into the 2018 MLS season, life couldn't have been much better for Jake Gleeson. He was living his dream of playing professional soccer as a goalkeeper for the Portland Timbers and doing it in a city that he loved. He already had been part of one MLS Cup-winning side and at age 28 he felt as if his best years were ahead of him.

Two years later, Gleeson's dream is gone following a calamitous series of events that started with surgery to treat stress fractures in both shins and has left him unable to walk without pain.

On Monday, Gleeson, through his attorneys, filed a medical malpractice lawsuit in Oregon Circuit Court, Multnomah County, against two of the Timbers' team doctors, Richard H. Edelson and Jonathan E. Greenleaf. Also named as defendants are Oregon Sports Medicine Associates and Oregon Outpatient Surgery Center.

Gleeson is seeking more than $10 million in economic and non-economic damages.

In an interview via video conference, Gleeson said the doctors named in the suit "took my life, took my livelihood and what I dedicated my life to do, and kind of just left me there to pick up the pieces. It's been absolutely crippling, devastating. I wouldn't wish the last two years of my life on anyone."

The Timbers, who were not named as defendants in the suit, couldn't be reached for comment.

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It was in the summer of 2018 when Gleeson's life took a drastic turn. He was suffering from pain in both shins and X-rays revealed stress fractures in both tibias. The Timbers' team doctors recommended that metal plates be inserted into both shins. The surgery was performed on Aug. 15 and a month later, Gleeson's recovery was going well. He expected to be back on the field in October.

But in mid-September Gleeson developed an infection in his right leg. He underwent another surgery that was supposed to remove the plate in that leg, only for the doctors to opt to leave it in. With the infection recurring, the decision was made to remove the plate in his right leg a week later, but then an infection in his left leg developed. That plate was removed as well.

Gleeson promptly sought new doctors and was diagnosed with necrosis and osteomyelitis in both shins, meaning that portions of the bone had become infected and died.

"I was in surgery the next day," he said.

Gleeson estimates that he has had 12 surgeries in total, the last several of which were to remove pieces of dead and infected bone.

In the court filing, a copy of which has been obtained by ESPN, the suit alleges in part that the defendants were negligent in that the plates weren't properly sterilized before surgery. It also contends that there was a "breach of sterility" at Oregon Outpatient Surgery Center that wasn't disclosed to Gleeson. It also alleges that the doctors selected "aggressive and risky procedures" for Gleeson, without first trying more conservative therapies. Lastly, it asserts that there was "no clear orthopedic necessity to implant the devices."

The complications from the surgeries set up Gleeson for a grueling rehab. A catheter was inserted into a vein so antibiotics could be sent directly to Gleeson's heart. He had a tube sticking out of his leg to remove pus that would collect. Gleeson recalls spending months on a couch; getting up to go to the bathroom was a challenge. He said he couldn't begin to count how many oxycodone and morphine pills he had taken for the pain.

Gleeson tried to regain the strength needed in his legs in order to return to the field, but too much damage had been done. The damage remains with him to this day.

"In terms of running, jumping, or trying to get back to train, those things aren't really in the cards for me right now," he says. "I have a lot of shin pain and nerve pain still."

Gleeson recalls that through the end of 2019, he still held out hope that he could play again. But activities that once were easy are now herculean tasks. He can walk only a few miles at a time. Treadmill sessions last about a minute before the pain becomes too much.

"It really hit me that I was never going to be the player that I was," he says. "So, even if my legs got to a point where I could play, I wouldn't ever get back to that level. MLS is gone for me now."

The physical aspect of his recovery wasn't even half the battle. That he couldn't get over the hump physically bled into emotional turmoil, exacerbated by the likelihood that his career was over. Gleeson said he struggled with panic attacks, anxiety and severe depression.

"I had these pills in front of me, and I thought to myself 'if I just took these, then that would be the end of the pain,'" he said. "That crossed my mind more than once because I realized at some point that this is probably my career. This is my life and I was just angry and confused about how someone could do this. To take these liberties with my health, especially my career, I look back on that now, and I'm upset that I got to that point. But at the time, when you're on that much medication, it's tough to see the other side of it.

"I definitely was pretty dark for a few months. I'm still coming out of it now."

Gleeson said his support system -- one that included his family and his girlfriend, Jordan Farrell -- helped him pull through. He also started seeing a therapist, which helped him articulate and process what he was experiencing.

"When you're stuck with your own thoughts and you don't feel comfortable saying them, going to a professional you can talk to really, really helped me," he said.

Gleeson's physical activity is now limited to hikes and rounds of golf. He quips that golf is his "therapy" now, although his new normal is to expect some level of pain when he walks. Gleeson said that because of the discomfort, he hasn't processed all of his anger. Some nights he'll be wide awake and his mind fixates on what happened and what might have been. Other nights, he'll wake up, unable to return to sleep. The daytime can be difficult as well.

"It's tough for me to watch MLS games," he says. "I get frustrated. I get sad."

One regret is that Gleeson never got to say goodbye to the Timbers Army or the city of Portland. There was never an official retirement because of what was going on with this recovery.

"I was a 19-year-old kid when I came in here, when we were still in USL," he says. "I watched the team grow into MLS and then win MLS Cup and go to the finals twice, go to the playoffs. For me it was a phenomenal experience.

"I would give just about anything to walk on that field again and play in front of the Timbers Army. To have that experience taken away from me was horrible but I also am so grateful for every moment I got to spend on that field and spend in the city because it's an amazing place to play and it's an amazing place to live."

Gleeson is now attempting to rebuild his professional life as a coach. He recently signed to become the goalkeeper coach for the women's team at St. Mary's College in Moraga, California.

"People say your life can change in an instant," he said. "They weren't lying about that."