JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO – RANDOLPH, Texas – When an Air Force Recruiting Service first sergeant’s brother needed a kidney transplant, he put family ahead of his career.
Master Sgt. Christopher Florida, 339th Recruiting Squadron, Clinton Township, Michigan, knew his brother had a kidney ailment for years, but didn’t realize how severe it was until his brother revealed he needed a transplant.
“I knew Dan had polycystic kidney disease, but it never crossed my mind how bad it was because if you ever talked to him, he jokes a lot and played it off as nothing serious,” Chris said. “As time passed, it became more and more clear that he was going through more than I thought. Eventually he sent a text to the family at the same time he made a post on Facebook.”
PKD is a disease that causes tissue-damaging cysts to grow throughout the kidney.
“I was diagnosed 12 years ago,” Dan said. “In my mind, my kidneys would be fine until I was elderly, and I would have to be more worried about a stroke killing me, as PKD causes hypertension.”
Last summer, when Dan, his wife and their children were leaving for a road trip to Michigan to see family, he received his monthly blood tests. And it was not good news.
“I saw my GFR (glomerular filtration rate) number was at 16. From what I had read, that was when you need to start dialysis. I was bummed but it was all so surreal and I was able to cope with it like I do everything – with humor,” Dan said. “When we got to Michigan and I told everyone, their reaction was basically the same as mine – let’s ignore it and just have fun for now, except my dad, who cries on a dime. He cried for a minute and seemed really worried during the rest of the visit.”
After visiting with his family, Dan made a post on the living donor Facebook page, where he finally explained his medical situation and reached out to find a living donor. His Facebook post read as follows:
Well I’m afraid that it’s the time of my life I’ve been praying off. I am in need of a kidney transplant. After my GFR number came back at 16 the other day, I knew I’d be doing dialysis soon. My doctor told me today that I can linger at this stage for a minute without dialysis if I can find a living donor. I have been putting off saying anything on here for a while because I didn’t know how to go about it with any couth. I can’t keep putting it off anymore, I’m in need of a living kidney donor. Thank you.
“It seemed a lot of people wanted to help. I was very moved, but just felt awful about asking someone to do such a huge sacrifice of time, money and physical wellbeing for me,” Dan said.
Once Chris read Dan’s message, he started asking more questions and Dan answered in depth about his kidney failure. “It was severe enough to scare anyone,” Chris said. “Without consideration for what the military rules were for donating, I went to the donor website and applied.”
Dan knew he had a match, but he didn’t know it was his own brother.
“Later in family texts, Chris told us that he'd filled out the form and was going into the next level of the process,” Dan said. “I was elated and relieved. With us being brothers, I just had a feeling of ‘what could go wrong?’ but I was also worried about him.”
On October 14, Chris received an email from Northwestern Medicine informing him that he was selected to move forward with evaluation.
Northwestern explained that because of COVID-19, the process was going to be prolonged. In January, Chris completed the bulk of the tests that were required in Chicago.
“Within two weeks, I was notified that I had a heart issue they wanted checked out and if that was clear, they would approve me for the surgery. The test results were cleared and I was approved approximately a month later,” Chris said. “I was back in Chicago on June 2. Dan and I had to do the last of the tests to make sure we were a match. The nurse would joke with me that if I had any issues that would prevent me from donating, they were going to find it. They called it the million dollar physical.”
The next hurdle Chris had to clear was getting the OK from the Air Force to proceed with the kidney donation.
“My family knows I have a saying of ‘Air Force first and family for life,’ meaning, I am going to check the Air Force rules before thinking I can do something, but at the end of the day, my family is everything,” Chris said. “I love the Air Force and would do just about anything to stay in as long as they let me stay. However, family will always be my exception and accepting that my career could be over was OK with me. I think being eligible for retirement obviously helps feel this way but even then, if there was a way to help my brother, I’d do it no questions asked.”
When Chris talked to his leadership, they totally supported in his decision.
“I was a bit taken aback when he first brought it up, not because I thought it was outrageous or anything, just because it’s not something you hear every day,” said Lt. Col. Bill McLauglin, 339th RCS commander. “I was supportive of course. His brother needed a new kidney, and Master Sgt. Florida likely had a spare. My only hesitation, really, was that I wanted the Shirt to make sure he researched and understood the process and the consequences to his career, health, and deployability. As long as he understood all that, I wasn’t going to stand in his way.”
Maureen Cristobal, beneficiary counseling and assistance coordinator at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, assisted Chris with getting everything approved by the military.
“When I met Master Sgt. Florida, he was clueless on where to start or if he can even donate his kidney. I could tell that he really wanted to help his brother, but on the other hand he was afraid that what he was doing could get him kicked out of the military,” Cristobal said. “That is not the case. There is a process that active duty and reserve component service members need to do, and if qualified they are able to be living donors.”
Donating an organ is something that is allowed in the military and is actually encouraged.
“One of the Air Force core values is service before self. Donating an organ to someone is not a career killer and Master Sgt. Florida is a prime example,” Cristobal said. “He wanted to help his brother out, kept searching on how to get this approved and he had it done. He is back to work and his brother is healthy. Talk to your first sergeant or a beneficiary services office. That’s the first step to know about this process and what to do.” Cristobal said.
Now that Chris was cleared, the brothers had to wait until it was time for surgery.
“Throughout the months it would take for the doctors' appointments and hearing back from the transplant center, I would get bouts of nervousness about him and I doing this and it not taking, or any number of things that I told myself could go wrong,” Dan said. “When I would mention it to Chris he would just say ‘there's nothing to be nervous about, they're going to fix this, and everything is going to be too easy.’”
Before the kidney transplant could be done, Dan found out that his kidneys were so large from the PKD, he would need to get one removed before the transplant to make room for the new one.
“The plan was to remove the kidney and do the transplant as soon as possible in hopes that I could avoid dialysis by some miracle with one bum kidney and a GFR of 11,” Dan said. “That procedure was extremely painful. They leave you alone for a little bit but they want you up and walking as much as you can muster right away. I was worried for Chris to have to go through that but thought if I could do it, then he definitely could too. The difference was that he didn't have to go through it, and I didn't have much choice. He maintained his brave attitude towards the whole thing.”
The time for the surgery arrived and the two brothers, joined by their wives drove to the hospital together.
“Like in all situations the weight of the day was buried in making jokes,” Dan said. “I was pretty confident Chris would get to the other side of his surgery as smooth as possible. I would get emotional thinking about him having to go through that. After all he is my little brother.”
The surgery was a success and the next day Dan and Chris took turns walking to each other’s room.
“We sat and talked, dumbfounded by what we were going through,” Dan said. “From the outside it seems like this crazy storm but when you're in the middle of it, it's pretty calm and surreal.”
One of their visits was cut short when Dan was taken away to do an ultrasound.
“My numbers hadn't improved much so the doctors wanted to see if blood was getting to the new kidney. That left me nervous and expecting the worse until the next morning around seven when the nurse told me that the blood tests they had taken earlier that morning came back and my GFR went from 11 pre-transplant to 14 the next day to 38 that morning,” Dan said. “I was ecstatic and couldn't stop the tears from flowing for hours. I felt an optimism I hadn't felt in a long time.”
During recovery, Chris had a lot of time to reflect on what happened.
“I thought if I felt as confused as I did throughout the process, who else out there feels the same? Or worse, not even know or try to donate because of all the unknowns,” Chris said. “I wanted to get the word out that I went through it and I am willing to offer any help I can to those thinking about it or wanting to know more. I literally saved my brother. Had I not taken the chances or things got worse for him, I would have been left with regret for not even trying. I wouldn’t wish that feeling on anyone.”
Chris admits he prides himself on having a high tolerance for pain and being resilient, but prior to the surgery he still found himself thinking about things he couldn’t express.
“A couple of weeks leading up to the surgery, I was shown a Facebook group called ‘Living Kidney Donors Support Group.’ I didn’t think it was going to be for me but I ended up relying on it as there were so many stories shared and questions asked,” Chris said. “To this day I am still active in the page because as I am only a few months out of donating. The support group played a huge role in sharing experiences that only the members would understand. If anyone were to ever start the donor journey, I would strongly recommend that group. My brother has his own groups that he goes to for the same reasons.”
Throughout this experience, Chris and Dan have reconnected as brothers and now share more than just a kidney. They are now close again.
“This has been an awesome experience and seeing that Dan is getting better makes it all worth it 10 times over,” Chris said. “Dan and I talk literally every day since it happened and that’s more than we have ever talked since joining the military. He still has a long road ahead but is on the right track. Dan has been nothing but motivational throughout all of this and he has been putting a lot of my care before his own, especially while I was there.”
“For the last 20 years I've only seen my brother a handful of times. I visited him in Arizona and in England but other than a few phone calls we were basically living our own lives. Being in this together has brought us closer,” Dan said. “When we were recovering, me in Chicago, and him in Michigan we texted a lot to see how the other was doing, and telling each other what we were watching. We both agree that the family feels together again, a tighter bond was formed, and we will definitely be in each other's lives.”
Dan has not lost his sense of humor through it all.
“While I welcome the new friendship, I think he just wants to keep tabs on his kidney,” he said.