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The Gift of a Lifetime
It’s 7 a.m. in the hills of Annville, PA, and 120 Citizen-Soldiers from Pennsylvania’s 2/104th Cavalry Regiment, part of the only Stryker Reconnaissance Squadron in the Army National Guard, are warming up for their annual PT tests at the Fort Indiantown Gap National Guard Training Center (FTIG). The sun has just risen and a chill is in the air, but Sergeant Joseph Love is excited about his first PT test with his new unit.
“I usually get three hundred points,” Love says, recalling his results last June. “To get a one hundred percent, I’d have to make the two-mile run in 13.18 minutes [he normally runs it in twelve minutes], do seventy-seven push-ups and eighty-four sit-ups. The minimum to pass is sixty percent of that score. I’ve only had twenty-six days to prepare for this test. If I can get ninety percent, I’ll be happy.”
Love’s former platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class Dan Famous of the 1/108th Field Artillery, is on-site to support him. He’s hidden behind sunglasses and doesn’t say much at this early hour, but it’s evident he’s rooting Love on.
When the test begins, Love blasts through push-ups like an energetic teenager. At 151 pounds, the 31-year-old combat medic and father of three possesses deceptive strength. It comes from his core, and it’s only as he nears the end of his count that Famous sees him struggling briefly. Love gets winded, but he makes it through with 76 push-ups.
Next, Love hits his sit-ups hard. With one minute left, a comrade reminds him to “keep breathing,” and he pauses briefly and then presses on. He hits 77. When it’s time for Love to hold a comrade’s feet for the sit-ups, Love won’t let him give up. “C’mon, get up! Get up!”
Then the grueling 2-mile run begins. A pack of 40 Soldiers races across the asphalt of a hilly divide between the gorgeous peaks of Blue Mountain. Love stands out from the beginning. “He’s always been a fast runner,” Famous says.
The only one wearing a bright yellow PT belt, Love outruns many of his comrades as he crosses the finish line at 14:05 minutes. Famous is there to congratulate Love when he gets his final PT score—285.
“I feel fantastic,” Love says.
Not bad for someone who donated a kidney just two months ago.
Famous, who knows better than anyone what Love went through, would be the first to agree.
TAKING THE INITIATIVE
The news came during drill in November 2012. Earlier, the 1/108th had learned that the 56th Stryker Brigade Combat Team was going to mobilize and deploy to Afghanistan in 2014 (a mission that was later canceled). Now, Famous had some extra information. “When it’s game time, I won’t be joining you,” Famous told his troops.
Famous, who’s now 46 years old, was no longer deployable due to his worsening polycystic kidney disease (PKD), a genetic disorder he and two of his siblings had been diagnosed with when they were younger. Cysts on his kidneys had grown over time, causing damage that could eventually lead to kidney failure unless he received dialysis or a kidney transplant.
Famous’ older brother had already had a transplant after having to quit his job and go on dialysis. It was a painful experience Famous didn’t want to go through firsthand. He decided to take initiative that would ultimately save his life.
Love had missed the announcement. He didn’t find out until a fellow medic gave him a piece of paper that would forever change his future. It was a simple business card. On it was Famous’ name, a picture of a pair of kidneys, contact information for his kidney donor team in Harrisburg and the determined phrase “Kidney Recipient.”
When Love discovered Famous’ life was at stake, he held on to the card and brought it home after drill to his wife, Hannah, and his three young daughters. He was considering making the donation.
His wife was immediately supportive. But he still had some questions to ponder. Could he still support them financially? Would he be forced to leave the military? Was he prepared for the possibility of death, which is always a risk with any major surgery?
Love felt it was a risk worth taking. “I trusted my wife—that was a major factor, a great deal,” he says. “I knew I had strong support from my church and my unit.” And, he remembers thinking, it wouldn’t make sense that the military would discharge one Soldier for helping another.
“I had faith they wouldn’t.”
At the heart of the decision, though, was the simple fact that Love saw a comrade whose life was in jeopardy, and he had a gift to offer. This is who he was. “You can’t expect anything else in return,” Love says. “It feels like a blessing to be able to give in this way, live out my faith and live out the Army values in a very real way and a very personal way.”
Once he ironed out the details, Love began an extensive testing process in March 2013, enduring several phases of blood and tissue testing, to see if his kidney was a match. The race was on to save Famous. His life hung in the balance. He needed a transplant soon or would face going on dialysis, which would mean the end of his military career.
AGAINST THE ODDS
One in 100,000. Those were the chances that Love would be an exact match. He’d have a better chance at being struck by lightning (one in 3,000) or being attacked by a shark (one in about 60,000) during his lifetime than being a nonfamilial living kidney donor match.
On top of that, what were the odds that the paths of their lives would intersect at precisely this moment for Love even to be a candidate? That all of their choices and achievements and assignments would eventually lead them to the 1/108th?
For everything to align—just in time—and for his kidney to match Famous, literally at the cellular level, required nothing short of a miracle, Love recalls. “If I would’ve joined the military at any other time; if I would’ve picked any other MOS; if I would’ve been assigned to any other unit, this never would have happened.”
But they all did. And in June 2013, doctors determined that Love was a positive match, ranking the Soldier’s health in the top 96th percentile of the population. “They told me that, from an anatomical standpoint, I had the ideal donatable kidney,” Love says.
It was time to break the good news.
During Love’s last Annual Training (AT) drill with the 1/108th that August, after serving for two years under Famous, he pulled his platoon sergeant aside to say goodbye. He told him it was great working with him. He thanked Famous for helping him get promoted. Then he added one thing.
“By the way,” he said, “I’ve got an extra kidney, so if you want it, it’s all yours.”
Famous was speechless. After having missed the first week of AT because his mother passed away, this unexpected good news was especially overwhelming. “It was a shock,” Famous says. “What could I say to someone offering me his kidney—knowing my military career would be over otherwise? I said yes!”
When Famous got home and told his wife, Andrea, she broke down and cried. “I don’t think she believed me at first,” he says.
Famous and his wife knew that a living kidney donation (rather than a donated organ from a cadaver) would have a higher success rate and would allow them to properly prepare for and schedule the surgery.
Last year, according to the National Kidney Foundation, there were just over 4,000 living donor kidney transplants conducted for the more than 99,000 people waiting for a new organ. Although rare, other Soldiers have had organ transplants. “He’s a conscientious sergeant who cares about his Soldiers,” Pennsylvania Guard Physician Assistant Major Todd Lupold, who is stationed at FTIG and who deployed with Famous as part of the 1/108th to Iraq in 2009, says of him. “[Famous is] also the type of person who keeps up on medical knowledge.”
Famous and Love prepared for another year and a half of testing before their scheduled surgery, learning all they could about the procedures they were about to endure. Suddenly, Famous’ glomerular filtration rate (GFR), which measures kidney function, became a serious concern. When the level drops below 15 percent, the patient is at risk for kidney failure and a kidney transplant is needed. At 10 percent, dialysis is necessary. Without either, the person could die. When the transplant took place on Feb. 18 this year, Famous was at 11 percent.
Both men, though, took the risks and dangers in stride—like the Soldiers and medics they are. “We have a trust in medicine,” Love says. “We understand how the body works. It was similar to taking out a good transmission from one vehicle and putting it in the next—just switching out parts, in a sense. It’s a simple concept. I think that helped.”
The surgeries went smoothly and finished in half the scheduled time (1.5 hours each). The Soldiers kept each other company in the hospital during their three-day stay. “It would’ve been dull if Dan wasn’t there,” Love says.
He jokes with Famous about how one of their doctors reminds him of a character from “Seinfeld.”
As a platoon sergeant with a commanding presence, Famous takes his role seriously, rarely cracking a grin. But when Love kids, Famous smiles from ear to ear. It’s this easygoing sense of humor that kept the friends going when times got rough.
THE ROAD BACK
For Love, the first few weeks of recovery after his laparoscopic surgery were the toughest, he says. He couldn’t lift anything more than 10 pounds, and he felt extreme fatigue after normal daily activities such as vacuuming. The incision site itself, however, wasn’t too painful. “They’re just cuts,” he says. “Unless they’re bopped by a five-year-old, which happened quite a bit,” he adds, laughing. “My girls [ages 5, 3 and 1] liked to jump up on my lap. They just say, ‘Daddy has boo-boos.’ ”
On March 31, Love was cleared of any physical restrictions. After a staggered return to work, by April 14 he was back full time at Nationwide Insurance, where he works as a claims representative. He also began preparing for the April PT test with his new Guard unit. “Instead of running, I’d walk farther,” Love says. “If I got tired, I’d take a few breaks.” In addition to a normal fitness routine, Love has joined a CrossFit gym, which he says is helping his quick recovery.
As the kidney recipient, Famous has gone through a more complicated recovery. He takes his vital signs twice a day and visits his transplant doctors regularly. Every day, he takes 22 pills to help his kidney fight rejection, and he’ll have to take some of those pills the rest of his life.
“But my endurance is increasing,” says Famous, who has two sons, ages 5 and 20 months. “As far as quality of life, it’s better. I can do more. And I have a new thirty-one-year-old kidney to abuse!”
Recovery will be a long process for Famous, but he says he is looking forward to a long, successful military career. Although nondeployable for the next few years, he could eventually deploy to support a unit in Europe. He also has hopes of becoming a first sergeant in a company and eventually retiring as a sergeant major. “Receiving this kidney is going to allow me to achieve these goals,” Famous says. “It’s a life-changer. Soldiers helping Soldiers.”
Famous has since returned to work with the Pennsylvania Guard. Support from the Guard has made the recovery process easier, he says.
Lieutenant Colonel Leland D. Blanchard II, squadron commander of the 2/104th Cavalry, is one of many members of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard who has been supportive of the Soldiers, as well as one of their admirers. “For a Soldier to do something like this for another Soldier is amazing,” he says. “And the truth is, [Love] can stay in the military, still do PT tests and live a productive life.”
Throughout this process, Love and Famous have become better friends, and the experience has brought their families together. They’re even planning a summer barbecue when Famous’ in-laws visit from England.
“This is who we are. The Guard is a family. It’s a brotherhood,” Blanchard says. “And now, [Famous is] part cav, literally.”
In June, Love will attend AT at Fort Knox, out in the field for the first time with the 2/104th. He’s training to become a medical sergeant vehicle commander, so he can drive a Medical Evacuation Vehicle (MEV), the large ambulance version of a Stryker, in addition to his current role as a medical sergeant training junior enlisted in medical readiness tasks.
Whether instructing other medics or going under the knife for a comrade, Love continually demonstrates his generosity and heart. “Sergeant Love lives up to the seven Army values, especially selfless service,” Famous says. “What greater gift can you give another human being than the gift of life?”
After Love’s PT test, Famous talks with another comrade about his kidney and the amazing story he will forever share with Love.
“You know, he’s got another one if you need it,” Famous jokes.
Love chimes in: “All you have to do is ask.”
DONATING A KIDNEY
Kidneys are essential because they remove waste products and excess fluid from your body, help regulate blood pressure, maintain calcium balance and control the production of red blood cells. There are 120,990 people waiting for lifesaving organ transplants in the U.S. Of these, 99,201 await kidney transplants, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Nearly 2,500 new patients are added to the kidney waiting list each month. Fourteen people die each day while waiting for a kidney transplant.
SGT LOVE SAYS
“There’s a great need for living donors of all types of organs, but particularly kidneys,” he says. “You don’t need to know the person. There’s always a need, so donate.” There is no financial burden on donors; Medicare covers the cost.
To identify yourself as an organ donor, visit DonateLife.net and click on “Register Now” (under “Provide Hope”) to learn about the options in your state. Also be sure to talk to your family about your decision.
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