Service Before Self: Being the 'Ultimate Wingman'

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Darryl Bush
  • 58th Maintenance Operations Squadron
When was the last time you thought about being an organ donor? How many of us have thought about what will happen to our organs when we die? What if you didn't have to wait until you die to donate an organ? Could you do it?

On April 30, 2008, as many of us enjoyed a beautiful spring day, Staff Sgt. Andrew Jones of the 58th Maintenance Operations Squadron became what some leaders of the 58th Special Operations Wing have called the "Ultimate Wingman."

Sergeant Jones, a senior controller in the Maintenance Operations Center of the 58th MOS, selflessly gave a part of himself to Tech. Sgt. Adam Johnson, a fellow controller. Sergeant Jones donated one of his kidneys to Sergeant Johnson, who had been in total renal failure for more than 22 months.

Sergeant Johnson was at the 377th Medical Group for a routine Physical Health Assessment when tests revealed problems with his kidneys. Sergeant Johnson was suffering from a rare autoimmune disease known as IgA nephropathy. His body had turned against itself and his immune system was killing his own kidneys as if they were an infection. In just a few weeks, he was forced to begin long and painful dialysis treatments to remove the toxins from his blood that his kidneys no longer could.

"Adam would come to work on Monday and he would just be puffy. There's no other way to describe it," says Maj. Mark O'Reilly, 58th MOS commander. "His skin was ashen and there were bags under his eyes, but through it all he never let it affect him or his professionalism."

From the day he was diagnosed, Sergeant Johnson's family all submitted to screening tests. None of his family, the most likely source of a live donor, was found to be a viable donor. Six members of the 58th MOS also volunteered to undergo screening; however, all but one was eliminated almost from the beginning. The sixth, another MOC controller like Sergeant Johnson, passed all but the last test before finding out that she, too, was not a viable donor for him. After almost 18 months of dialysis, the prospects of finding a kidney were starting to dim.

Finally, in the summer of 2007, Sergeant Jones joined the MOC team as a weapons system controller. Within days of joining the 58th MOS, he heard about Sergeant Johnson's fight for life and his need for a kidney. Without any hesitation, he too volunteered to undergo the long screening process.

The donation process is long and arduous. Besides the many compatibility tests and invasive procedures to ensure a donor kidney will be accepted by its host body, there are many hours of counseling and psychological screening a donor must undergo. The tests are for the safety of both the donor and the recipient and are meant to ensure that the donation is being given under legal and ethical circumstances. For Sergeant Jones, this meant that many tests had to be performed after long nights as the senior controller during the midnight shift.

As the long days stretched into weeks and months, Sergeant Jones persevered through the tests, each time successfully passing the screening without problem. Finally, on April 1, of all days, doctors at Presbyterian Medical Center cleared Sergeant Jones to donate one of his kidneys to Sergeant Johnson.

"At first I thought it was an April Fools' joke," said Sergeant Jones.

The surgery took place on April 30. For six hours, doctors worked to remove the kidney from Sergeant Jones and implant it into Sergeant Johnson.

"The kidney 'pinked up' immediately," said Lorissa, Sergeant Johnson's wife. "Before long, the color returned to Adam's face and his energy started coming back. He had so much energy, the nurses had to threaten to tie him down to keep him in bed!"

Recovery for Sergeant Jones was painful, at times making even breathing unbearable. Through it all, his mother, Susan, his girlfriend, and many members of the 58th MOS stood by him. Despite the struggles, he has never complained or regretted his decision.

"I felt that, for whatever reason, I was meant to be in the MOC and to help [Sergeant Johnson]," Sergeant Jones said.

Today, both Sergeants have fully recovered and continue to work side-by-side in the MOC. Both Airmen had the chance to meet Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Rodney McKinley during his recent visit to Kirtland Air Force Base and Chief McKinley made sure to recognize the incredible sacrifice Sergeant Jones made for his fellow Airman.

When asked to sum up his thoughts on the gift that Sergeant Jones had given him, Sergeant Johnson said, "It is truly a humbling experience to have to ask someone outside of my family to give up an organ. Andy's decision to donate rescued me from a miserable existence on dialysis. His gift gave me my life back and saved my military career and I will always be grateful for that."