Tony Ambrose, Oak Park’s police chief, needs a liver transplant.
Monday afternoon in a telephone interview, he said that while the “initial diagnosis was a shock” he didn’t expect, “I’ve always been a fighter. I set goals every day.” And the new goal is, “I’m going to beat it.”
In late April, Village Manager Cara Pavlicek announced that Ambrose was taking a leave of absence. She appointed Deputy Chief LaDon Reynolds as interim chief.
At the time Pavlicek did not reveal the reason for Ambrose’s leave, though she suggested the chief might be ready to talk about it this week. And he was on Monday, describing the intricate process of screening potential liver donors, how he is preparing mentally and physically for the hoped-for and anticipated transplant surgery, and his appreciation for the support he is receiving from the police department, village hall and the community.
“It has been such a positive response,” he says. “People in the community have reached out. Please express my appreciation.”
The specific type of liver disease Ambrose is battling is called nonalcoholic steatohepatitus or NASH. In most cases, patients are asymptomatic. That was true of Ambrose who went to doctors at Northwestern Medicine to complain about “losing energy,” a problem he had only recently experienced. He wound up spending a week in the hospital seeing specialists and undergoing a battery of tests.
Then came the diagnosis and the certainty that a “living-donor liver transplant” was the only course of action. The word has gone out that Ambrose needs a transplant and he said there “has been an influx of people” who have stepped up. A very thorough vetting process follows with potential donors being evaluated both physically and psychologically.
In a live-donor transplant, the donor gives up a portion of their liver. The donor’s liver will gradually regenerate but the process is not without some risk. That is why, Ambrose said, there is a psychological evaluation to make sure a donor “understands exactly what they are doing.”
Right now Ambrose is staying with a relative — he is not supposed to be alone — as he continues daily exercise to make sure he’s in shape for potential surgery.
“I’m working out daily,” he says, “walking, exercising. So if they call me in a month, I’ll be ready.”
Ambrose is a longtime veteran of the Oak Park Police Department. He joined up in 1984. He was promoted to deputy chief in 2005 under Chief Rick Tanksley. When Tanksley retired in 2016, Pavlicek appointed Ambrose to the top spot. He has served as chief for about 18 months.
Ambrose has led two especially notable department initiatives since his promotion to deputy chief a dozen years back. All officers on the Oak Park force now receive ongoing training in mental health issues. This was a groundbreaking concept when Ambrose brought it to Oak Park. And it dovetails with his focus on changing the dynamics of crisis intervention by local police. Those dangerous encounters often involve a person with mental health problems and efforts to slow down and de-escalate such situations brings better results.
Ambrose also aligned the police department with local mental health providers, particularly Thrive, to insert mental health professionals into complex police situations quickly.
Now, says Ambrose, raising awareness of organ donation “has been added to my list” of causes.
Ambrose says he has great confidence in Reynolds as interim chief. “We’ve worked closely together for 25 years. The department needs to have a leader present.”
What happens next is a waiting game.
“In my mind, I truly believe there will be a liver available for me,” says Ambrose. “We all have these hurdles in life. This is one for me.”