'Devastated' Gleeson sues Timbers doctors
Jake Gleeson seemed destined for a storybook kind of career with the Portland Timbers.
Instead, the way it ended was, in Gleeson's words, devastating.
Surgeries in 2018 were designed to help heal stress fractures in the goalkeeper's shins. Instead, infections and loss of bone in both tibias left Gleeson in constant pain and unable to play.
That is the claim in a lawsuit filed Monday, July 6, in Multnomah County. Gleeson is asking for about $10.2 million in damages from a pair of Timbers team doctors and the businesses where they are part owners.
Filed by Portland firm Kafoury & McDougal, the lawsuit claims that metal plates surgically attached onto Gleeson's tibias were not properly sterilized. The contaminated plates caused infections in each leg that ended Gleeson's soccer career, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit seeks damages for economic loss, pain and suffering from doctors Richard Edelson and Jonathan Greenleaf as well as Oregon Outpatient Surgery Center and Oregon Sports Medicine.
The Timbers are not named in the lawsuit.
A message left Tuesday, July 7, with Oregon Outpatient Surgery Center was not immediately returned.
The Timbers said through a spokesperson that the club does not comment on ongoing litigation.
Greg Kafoury, one of the attorneys representing Gleeson, said the Timbers are not named in the lawsuit because they did nothing wrong. Kafoury added Gleeson's case against the doctors is strong.
"The fact that the infection was in both legs suggests a failure to sterilize," Kafoury said.
Kafoury said it will take about 18 months for the suit to go to trial.
Suing the doctors is the latest stage in a two-year ordeal for Gleeson, who turned 30 last month — an age at which he thought he would be entering his prime years as a professional goalkeeper. Instead, he said he still experiences pain when running or jumping. He is trying to turn toward a career in coaching. He recently accepted a position as the goalkeeping coach for the women's soccer team at Saint Mary's College in Morgana, California.
In an interview with the Tribune, Gleeson used the word "devastating" multiple times as he reflected upon the ordeal that ended his Timbers career just as it seemed that years of preparation were about to pay off.
Gleeson was 20 when he made his pro debut with Portland, and — after sticking with the club and playing mostly reserve matches for five seasons — started 27 games in 2016 and 21 in 2017.
He started the first six games of the 2018 season. Those three seasons accounted for 54 of the 59 regular-season MLS games Gleeson played for the Timbers. He made one playoff appearance, manning goal in a scoreless draw against Vancouver in the 2015 Western Conference semifinals — the year Portland won the MLS Cup championship.
The Timbers went 22-20-15 with nine shutouts when Gleeson was the goalkeeper of record.
His last appearance for the Timbers was seven years to the day after his first pro start. On April 14, 2018, Gleeson was in goal for a win over Minnesota United.
Four months later, his career was in jeopardy.
At 6-3, Gleeson arrived in Portland in 2010 with plenty of promise. He had played internationally for New Zealand at the Under-17 and Under-20 levels. At 19, he made a strong impression in Portland as the goalkeeper for the Timbers Under-23 side that went unbeaten and won the Premier Development League Championship.
The following February he signed with the Timbers ahead of their inaugural MLS season. His first pro start was the first MLS home match in Timbers history, a 4-2 win over Chicago on April 14, 2011. He earned the MLS Save of the Week honor twice early in the 2011 season.
It was another five years before Gleeson saw regular duty with the MLS Timbers. But during that period he made eight appearances for New Zealand's senior national team. During a 2014 loan, Gleeson helped Sacramento Republic FC to the USL Pro championship. In 2015, he made 20 appearances with T2.
Gleeson's persistence appeared ready to bear fruit. Unlike field players, goalkeepers often don't reach their prime until they turn 30 and many play into their late 30s. Gleeson's career trajectory was positive.
Then he felt some pain in his shins, pain that persisted during the summer of 2018.
When X-rays showed bilateral stress fractures in both shins, Gleeson said the surgery to implant plates sounded like the best course of action. Gleeson said he was told recovery time would get him back on the field in two months, or about the same timeframe as recovery from a bad muscle strain.
Instead, Gleeson wound up having 14 surgeries between August 15, 2018 and April 23, 2019 — 11 of those on his right leg, including three in a six-day span of October, 2018.
Gleeson said the experience "crippled me physically and mentally."
Stuck on his couch, often nauseous from the pain, Gleeson said it was a struggle to even go to the bathroom and that he often slept only an hour or two a day.
"I was confused and angry about how a single surgery could go so wrong," Gleeson said.
The pain and the inability to play the sport he loves led to dark emotional periods.
"I just became very, very depressed," Gleeson said. He said he experienced suicidal thoughts, anxiety and panic attacks.
Gleeson credits close friends, including his girlfriend, Jordan Farwell, and his family in New Zealand for recognizing that he was in a dark emotional place and needed help.
"If it wasn't for them and their support, I don't know where I would be now," Gleeson said.
Gleeson said he remains limited to riding a stationary bike for fitness. He also takes walks, but said he often feels pain in his legs after a walk. His lawyers said he is at risk for future infections and might need more surgeries.
Gleeson spent about a year doing physical therapy with the intention of returning to playing pro soccer. Once it became clear that wasn't going to happen, Gleeson said he gradually began to think about what's next — and that coaching is a good avenue to stay in the sport he loves.
"I think I have a lot of experience I can share," Gleeson said, adding that he still loves soccer. He wants to help college players develop on and off the field and believes his experiences — including leaving home at 19 and moving to Portland to develop into a professional athlete and dealing with the loss of his career in his prime — can help him teach others as they pursue their goals.
Gleeson regrets that, because he was stuck at home away from the club, he never had the opportunity to publicly thank Timbers' fans, including the Timbers Army, for their support during his eight years with the club.
"I want to say thank you to the city and to the fanbase for all the support," he said, calling his years with the Timbers the best of his life.
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